A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF J.S MBITI’S AFRICANS’ CONCEPTION OF TIME
J.S Mbiti contended that Africans perceive time composition of events which must be lived through. He contended further, that one can from such ontology, arrive at the understanding of African philosophical concepts.
This essay attempted a critical examination of Mbiti’s view on Africans’ conception of time, and to show that Mbiti’s Africans’ conception of time, is not key to the understanding of African philosophical concepts.
The method employed was an in depth analysis of concept of time in African cultures and philosophical argumentation.Mbiti’sAfrican Religions and Philosophy, Masolo’sAfrican Philosophy in Search for Identity, Ayoade’sTime in Yoruba thought, Oke’sFrom an Ontology to an Epistemology, and Gyekye’sAn Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conception Scheme, were studied and analyzed.
The results of this essay included the following: first, that Mbiti’s claim that Africans lack the idea of an extended future is false, that there various time conception on the continent of Africa, and that the understanding of Mbiti’s African conception of time did not necessarily mean an understanding of African philosophical concepts.
This essay concluded that there is the concept of an extended future in Africa and Mbiti should not have based his conclusion from his understanding of the Kikamba culture only, which erroneously led him to the fallacy of hasty generalization with regard to the conceptions of time in Africa.
MBITI’S AFRICANS’ CONCEPTION OF TIME
Before one can discuss J.S Mbiti’s work on the conception of time in African thought, one needs to grasp the fundamental issues that stand as background to Mbiti’s paper. This chapter aims at looking at this background which is rooted in religion as an ontological phenomenon. This phenomenon explains the reality of time as constitution of events.
J.S Mbiti had set out to refute some of the prejudices against African traditional religion by Westerners who measured African traditional religious concept with Christianity which came as a result lack of indebt study of African religion leading to hasty conclusion. Also, another part of Mbiti’s objectives was to discuss the African conception of time as the key to our understanding of basic religious and philosophical concepts of Africans. His belief was that the study of time might enhance our understanding of thoughts, practices, and valuesof African peoples.
Moreover, I shall endeavor to brief explain how Mbiti attempts to discuss the shift from African traditional religion as an ontological phenomenon as a foundation to his concept of time in African thought.
1.1 African Traditional Religion as an Ontological Phenomenon
Religion in African thought is fundamentally part of human life.[i] It has a great value in the lives of human beings. For Africans, religion is an ontological phenomenon. This implies that religion pertains to the question of existence or being. Mbiti argues that for any African viewed within the context of a traditional life, is a religious participation which begins before birth and continues to death.[ii] It would therefore, be appropriate to deduce from Mbiti’s work that, man lives in a religious universe where everything he does or every activity a man engages in Africa seen and experienced through a religious understanding and meaning.
Names of individuals in the society have religious significance, and objects such as rocks and boulders are not empty objects but are objects with religious significance. The point being raised here by Mbiti is that Africans have their own ontology, and this ontology is a religious phenomenon; a man is deeply religious being living in a religious universe.[iii]Failure to realize this religious ontology has led missionaries, anthropologists and colonial administrators to misunderstand ideas of African people. He then argues that to understand to the ideas of African people is in penetrating that ontology, that is, African traditional religion.
However, at this point, there are some questions that are worth asking, questions such as; what is religious ontology? How do we penetrate this ontology? It should be noted that he has given some reasons earlier on why we ought to penetrate this religious ontology.
He divides this ontology into five categories, but this ontology has man as its central figure.[iv] In other words, this division of the religious ontology is seen as in terms to man. This is solely because man in African thought is seen as a religious being;[v]everything a man does is within his religion.
God, in African thought, is viewed as the origin and subsistence of all things. He is seen by most people in the African settings as the Supreme Being and the cause of man’s existence. In Mbiti’s work, ‘God is the originator and subsistence of this ontology’.[vi] He claims in his work, Concept of God in Africa, 1969, that he collected all the information available concerning the traditional concepts of God in Africa from nearly 300 people from all over Africa, outside the traditionally Christian and Muslim communities. And one thing stands outstanding; this is the conception of God as the Supreme Being.
The second category of this division is the spirit beings. Since man is the center of this division, it is the spirits that explain the destiny of a man.[vii] Although many scholars both within and outside Africa, might subject this explanation to further philosophical scrutiny as regards the connection between man and spirits, and how the later would explain man’s destiny, but what is of importance to Mbiti’s explanation is that, the belief in spirits is common to African life.
Another category is man himself[viii], since this religious ontology is anthropocentric itself. As such, man cannot be left out of this division, just because of the fact it is man who practice religion. Animals and Plant occupy the fourth division, while object and other phenomena occupy the fifth category. Mbiti explains that man is not the sole inhabitant of a society. Animals, plants, some other living object and other phenomena constitute what is known as the environment to man.[ix] He further admonishes that a balance must be maintained so that these modes neither drift too far apart from one another nor get too close one another.
In addition, to these categories, there seems to be a force, power or energy, permeating the whole universe. God is the origin and the controller of this force; but the spirits have access to this force. A few human beings have knowledge and ability to tap, manipulate and use it, such as medicine-men, witches, priests and rain-makers, some for good and some for the ill of their communities.[x]
However, Mbiti does note expatiate further or explain this force that permeates the whole universe. Questions about the nature and application of this force might be raised. This would be a further investigation for scholars interested in discussing further the problems of this division. So how do we penetrate this ontology and does this ontology fit into the religious system? Hence in answering these questions, Mbiti proposes to discuss the concept of time in Africa as the key to our understanding of the basic religious and philosophical concepts. This shall be discussed in subsequent sub headings below.
1.2 Mbiti: Time as the Constitution of Events.
Mbiti contends that controversy of time in Africa does not constitute academic importance to most people in Africa, this is because ‘an ontological phenomenon’ that ‘pertains to questions of existence or being.[xi] In other words, Mbiti’s conception of time in Africa could be viewed as the composition of events. It then implies that human experience cannot be isolated from the explanation of time in Africa.[xii] Mbiti, in explaining this concept, divides his concept into sub categories: Potential time, Actual time and No-time. ‘What has not taken place or what has no likelihood of an immediate occurrence falls into the category of No-time.’[xiii] ‘What is certain of immediate occurrence or what falls within the rhythm of natural phenomena, is in the category of inevitable’[xiv] In other words, potential time consists of events that are likely or possibly taken place’
From the above distinctions, a boundary can as well be drawn because it seems evident that according to the traditional conception of time in Africa, is a two dimensional phenomenon, with a past, present and virtually no future.[xv]Also, one can deduce from the above explanation of time in Africa that the linear concept of time in western thought is alien to African traditional thought. The future is virtually because events which lie in it have not taken place. They have not taken place; they have not been realized and cannot, therefore, constitute time. Actual time is therefore, what is present, and what is past.[xvi]It moves ‘backward’ rather than ‘forward’; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place.
So far, the time orientation in Mbiti’s idea has revealed that time in Africa is of two dimensions, the present and past. These dominate African understanding of the individual, the community and the universe which constitutes five categories mention earlier. Time has to be experienced in order to become real. A person experiences time partly in his own individual life, partly through the society which goes back many generations before his birth. However, Mbiti admonishes that since what is in the future is yet to be experienced, it does not make sense; it cannot, therefore constitute part of time, and people do not know how to think about it, unless it is something that falls within the rhythm of natural phenomena.
He, also, acknowledges that in the East African languages, in which he carried out his research and tested his findings, there are no concrete words to express any idea of future.[xvii] In Kikamba language, Mbiti explains that the three verb tenses such as ‘Ninguaka’, ‘Ninguka’ and ‘Ninukite’ refer to a period of six months or not beyond two years at most.
Also in Gikuyu language, verb tenses such as, ‘Ningoka’ and ‘Ninguka’ refer to an immediate period, two years at most. He therefore concluded that in African thought, the future does extend beyond two years.[xviii]
1.3 Time Reckoning and Chronology
Time reckoning in Africa for specific and concrete purpose, Mbiti explains that Africans reckon time in connection with composition of events. Numerical calendars do not exist in Africa. Even if such exist, they are likely to be of a short period of time, stretching back perhaps a few decades, but certainly not in the reach of centuries. This seems to be true, even in this contemporary time. Numerical calendars, for example, express days in form of month and twelve months make a year; such calendars do not stipulate time infinitely.
What exist in African thought are not numerical calendars, but phenomenon calendars, in which the events constitute time, are considered in relation with another event, and as they take place, they constitute time. For instance, a farmer, after planting of crops, would count the number of days or months before harvest. Hence, the day, the month, the year, one’s life time or human history, are all divided up or reckoned according to specific events, for it is this that makes time meaningful. Another instance is when a person says that he will meet another person at sunrise; it does not matter whether the meeting takes place at 5am or 7am, so long as it is during this general period of sunrise. For the people concerned, time is meaningful at the point of the event and not at the mathematical moment.
In African conception, time has to be created or produced.[xix] Man is not a slave of time; instead he creates as much time as he wants. However, time in Western thought, could be seen as a commodity which must be utilized, sold and bought. Mbiti draws an example from history, specifically from the arrivals of foreigners in Africa. When foreigners see Africans seating down somewhere without evidently doing anything, they often remark that Africans waste their time by just seating down being idle. Another assumption is just that Africans are always late, without knowing what time means to Africans. Those who are seating down are not actually wasting their time but are in the process of producing time. The concept of time defines and influences the life and attitudes of African people.[xx]However, there are questions on how people reckon time; ‘day’, ‘month’ and year.
In Mbiti’s thought, Africans reckon day according to its significant events; since time in African thought is composition of events. For instance, Mbiti explains that among the Ankore people of Uganda, day is explained as events pertaining to cattle rearing.
6a.m: is milking (akasheshe)
12noon: is time is for cattle and people to take rest (bariomubirago)
1pm: is the time to draw water from the well or river (baazaabamaziba)
2pm: is time for cattle to drink and the herdsmen to the watering places (amasyoniganywa)
3pm: is the time when cattle leave their watering places and start grazing again (amasyonigakuka)
5pm: is when the cattle return home being driven by the herdsmen (enteniitaba)
6pm is when the cattle enter their kraals or sleeping places (entezaataba)
7pm: is milking before the cattle sleep and this closes the day.
Furthermore, Mbiti explains that lunar months are recognized than the numerical months. According to Mbiti, certain events are associated with particular months, so that the months are named according to the most events or the prevailing conditions.[xxi] For instance, there is the hot month, the month of first rain, the harvest month, the hunting month, etc. It does not matter how many days hunting lasts; the events of hunting are what matter much more than the mathematical length of the month. In this paragraph, Mbiti is giving an instance of how the Ankore people of Uganda reckon time.
He also argues that the year is also composed of events, but of a wider range, because the seasonal activities make a year. For example, in Nigeria, two seasons are recognized: rainy and dry season. In Mbiti’s words, when of seasons are completed, then the year is completed, since it is these seasons that make up a year.[xxii]
 The Ankore people are the mostly found in Western Uganda, and they are constituted by Ankole people. Milton Obote explains that these people are majorly cattle rearers and there their understanding of time goes in line owith their occupation.
[i] Mbiti, J.S., “The Encounter of Christian Faith and American Religion”, Christian Century, Vol. 9(1) 1980, p. 15
[ii] Mbiti, J.S, African Religions and Philosophy, New York: Double Day and Co. Inc., 1970, p. 15
[iii]Ekeke, C.E, Ekeopara C.A, ‘God, divinities and spirits in African traditional religious ontology’ in American Journal of Social and Management Sciences,2010. P. 4
[iv]Oke, M, “From an Ontology to an African Epistemology”, in African Journal, Vol. 16(3), p. 26.
[v] Mbiti, J.S, p. 17.
[vi]Kalumba, K.M; “A New Analysis of Mbiti: The Concept of Time”PhilosophiaAfricanaVol. 8(1), March 2005, p.11.
[vii] Mbiti, J.S, p. 16.
[viii] Mbiti, J.S, p. 16.
[ix] Mbiti, J.S., p. 16.
[x] Mbiti, J.S., p. 17.
[xi]Oke, M., p. 27.
[xii]Oke, M.,p. 27.
[xiii] Wiredu, Kwasi (ed.), a Companion to African Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2004. P.10.
[xiv] Wiredu, K., P.11.
[xv]Kalumba, K.M, p.12.
[xvi] English, Parker, “Kalumba, Mbiti, and Traditional Africans’ Concept of Time” Philosophia Africana Vol. 9 (1), March, 2005, P.54.
[xvii]Oke, M., p. 28.
[xviii]Mbiti, J.S, p. 19
[xix] Mbiti, J.S, p.20
[xx] Mbiti, J.S., p. 21
[xxi]Ekeke, C.E, &Ekeopara C.A,P. 6.
[xxii] English, Parker, P.55.