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Time -African Concept of Time in John S. Mbiti

The African Concept of Time in John S. Mbiti



Time is one of the deepest mysteries known to man. No one can say exactly what it is. Yet, the ability to measure time makes man’s way of life possible. This concept time imbues in us the ability to think metaphysically due to its immaterial nature. It has seriously pre-occupied philosophers right from the time man began to evaluate his existence and essence and that of others.

        In the African context, it has been the case that some people speak derogatorily on their conception of time. Some of these people are of the view that Africans have no time at all, while for some though Africans have time but they have no sense of using it.

        It is to these groups that Prof. J.S Mbiti falls when he took a view which provoked serious reactions among Africans themselves. J.S Mbiti asserts that:

“… according to traditional concepts, time is a two dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present and virtually no future”. [1]

In the African thought on time, nature plays a determining role in their time concept and reckoning, they create time and wait for time vis-à-vis the Western world. Also, Mbiti made this provoking assertion, because he did not study time as time, but time as a key for the understanding and interpretation of African Religions and philosophy.

        Therefore, our task here is to look at time as time and also show that the three dimensions of time: a long past, a present and a long future is a reality in the African thinking.

        In this work we have four vital chapters, in the first chapter; we have the introduction, the definition of the concept Africa and the concept time. The second chapter is the literature review, beginning with the Western thought on time, right from the Greek mythology of time, Aristotle on time, St. Augustine on time, down to African thinkers on time, Ayoade on time in Yoruba thought, Traditional Igbo on time and Henri Maurier, a French man, on African time. The third chapter centers on African concept of time according to J.S Mbiti, his idea on potential time and Actual time, time reckoning and chronology, the concept of past, present, and future, the concept of history and pre-history, the concept of Human life in relation to time, Death and immortality, space and time and Discovering or Extending the future Dimension of time. Finally then, chapter four is made up of critical evaluation, conclusion and bibliography.


1.1 Introduction

          Time is of philosophical interest and is also the subject of mathematical and scientific investigation. In fact, time as a topic of study extends to virtually every area of intellectual inquiry and practical engagement.

          The origin of time dates back to the “coming to be” of the world, which runs in pari-passu with the origin of events. It is the particular instance or interval when something occurs or is expressed to occur. When one speaks of the time of day or the time of year, one refers to a specific instance. When one speaks of time required to do something, one refers to an interval or length of time between two instances. The idea, time, connects the interval between two events. It also refers purely to three forms or dimensions of time, the past, the present, and the future.

          In the face of this problem, philosophers have sought an understanding of time by focusing on two broad questions: what is the relation between time and physical world? And what is the relation between time and consciousness?

          For Sir Isaach Newton, who adopts an absolutist theory of time, the answer to the former question is that time is like a container within which the universe exists and change takes place. This relationship between time and the physical world is of a concrete fact within the African context, for instance, one can use his or her shadow to determine the period of the day whether mid-day, afternoon, evening and so on, depending on the place of the shadow at that moment.

          Then, the primary issue concerning the relation between time and consciousness is the extent, if any, to which time or aspects of time depend on the existence of conscious beings. It is perhaps a common idea that even in the absence of consciousness, events would still occur in an order that could be described using the relation of before and after. But perhaps it is not so. Normally events in time are thought of in terms of the notions of past, present, and future, which some philosophers treat as mind-dependent. They argue that to say that something is now happening is to say that its happening is simultaneous with one’s current state of consciousness or the act of utterance itself. Thus, it is maintained, in the absence of conscious beings, there is no past, present or future. This view that the past, present and future are mere subjective projections of the human mind has been supported by appeal to physics for such notions were thought to play no role in physical theories. Other philosophers, however, believe that time is independent of perception and hold that the past, present and future, are objective features of the world. For the Africans, time is dependent on its relationship with conscious beings, this is why it is said that Africans create time and wait for time. Buttressing this more, Martin Heidegger says that we cannot say there was a time when there were no human beings. At every time, there were and are and will be human beings, because time temporalizes itself only as long as there are human beings,[2] therefore, solidifying the relationship between time and conscious beings.

          Furthermore, the traditional African made use of time to serve his needs. He did not allow time to make use of him by becoming a slave to hectic temporality. For instance, he worked to live. He did not live to work. Though as long as he lived and could; he worked; for working and living are inextricable partners. In the African time, the present was always there as the future was ever unfolding into the now. The past was the behind, the realized and the achieved. Via its mirrors, progress into the future continues until the ancestral and spirit future (infinite time) is reached.

          Nevertheless, time is the general term for the conscious experience of duration, that is, the occurrence of events in sequence, one after another.


1.2     The Concept African

          In antiquity, the Greeks are said to have called the continent Libya and the Romans to have called it Africa, perhaps from the Latin aprica (sunny), or the Greek aphrike (without cold). The name Africa however, was chiefly applied to the northern coast of the continent, which was in effect, regarded as a southern extension of Europe. The Romans, who for a time ruled the North African coast, are also said to have called the area south of their settlements Afriga, or the land of the Afrigs-the name of a Berber community south of Carthage.

          Africa is the second largest continent on earth, embracing one-fifth of its land area. From north to south the continent is divided almost equally by the Equator, but, because of the bulge formed by western Africa, the greater part of Africa’s territory lies northward. The continent is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by the Red sea and the Indian Ocean and on the south by the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans off the Cape of Good Hope. In the northeast, Africa was joined to Asia by the Sinai Peninsula until the construction of the Suez Canal. There are a number of Islands associated with Africa; the largest of these, lying to the southeast is Madagascar.

          The Sahara, the world’s largest contiguous desert, occupies more than one fourth of Africa’s total land area. The other major desert areas, the Namib and the Kalahari, lie in the south-western portion of the continent.

Africa’s hydrology is dominated by the Nile and the Congo River basins, which together drain nearly one-fourth of the continent’s land area. Lying south of the divide between these two great watersheds are some of the worlds largest freshwater lakes. Island-studded lake, Victoria, the largest lake in African, is the chief reservoir of the Nile. Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa (Malawi) are the largest of a string of lakes formed within the deep valley of Africa’s great rift system. The Niger River in western Africa and the Zambezi and Orange rivers in the south, along with their tributaries, account for much of the continent. Lake Chad in the north and the Okavango swamp in the south lie within Africa’s two major interior basins.

          Africa’s climate is greatly affected by its position astride the Equator. Six main types of climates are found in Africa: (I) equatorial (ii) tropical savanna, (iii) tropical steppe (iv) tropical desert, (v) Mediterranean, and (vi) high land. Temperature is high for most of the year, but they are modified by elevation in the mountains and by the influence of ocean currents on the coast. Only about six percent of the African content is arable while nearly one-fourth is forested or wooded.

          The continent is well known for its wide variety of animal life. Big-game animals are found roaming the savanna regions of the south and east and to a lesser extent, in the savanna area to the north.

          Africa’s share of some of the world’s major mineral reserves is estimated to include about 8 percent of all petroleum, some 27 percent of all bauxite, 29 percent of all uranium and 20 percent of all copper. The continent also has about two-thirds of the world’s phosphorites and substantial reserves of iron ore, manganese, chromium cobalt, platinum, and titanium. Agriculture is the main occupation in Africa. It is the most important sector of the economy in most countries and employs about two-third of the total labor force. Traditional farming still predominates, though mechanization is slowly increasing. The leading cash crops include sugarcane, tomatoes, peanuts, banana, Oranges, cotton, grapes, coconuts, palm oil, olives, pineapples, coffee, tea, and cacao. Subsistence crops include cassava, corn, plantains, sorghum, millet, wheat, rice, sweet potatoes, barley, watermelons, onions, and dry beans. Temperate and subtropical crops are grown primarily in northern and southern African and in the high lands of east African, while tropical crops dominate in central and western Africa. Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Zaire are the leading crop producers.

          The peoples inhabiting Africa probably speak more separate and distinct languages than those of any other continent. In Africa we have over 800 languages. The most homogenous region, in terms of language, is North Africa, where Arabic is predominant from Egypt to Mauritania, as well as in the Sudan. Within the Maghrib, along the Mediterranean coast, reside Berber-speaking peoples, concentrated in Morocco and Algeria, but Arabic is also widely used.

          The languages spoken by the sub-Saharan peoples are more numerous. With the exception of the Khoisan language family of southwestern Africa, the largest area of the sub-Sahara is inhabited by peoples speaking a number of languages known collectively as Bantu, the major subgroup of the Benue-Congo group of the Niger-Congo language family. Between the Arabic dominated northern region and Bantu-speaking central and southern Africa reside groups speaking other languages of the Niger – Congo family. Close proximity to the Arabic culture of the Sahara has influenced black western Africans, and in a number of countries Islam is the predominant religion.

        Dutch migrations began in the mid-17th century. The English first settled in what are now Zambia, Zimbabwe and East Africa Highlands in the 19th century. East Africa is a region of great lakes, tropical highlands and coastal plains. It is the home of some of the most politically and socially complex African people. Prominent groups are the Watusi; Masai, Kikuyu and Chagga peoples on the mainland and the Swahili people on the island of Zanzibar.

They have a long history of foreign settlement in their territory. During the middle ages it was occupied by the Bantu speaking peoples from the Congo Basin. The incoming migrant forced most of the original inhabitants, who were mainly Bushmen to move south. After the 15th century, the region was successively occupied by the Portuguese, the Germans, and the British, who took much of the land for their own use. Portuguese settled in Angola and Mozambique while Germans settled in what is now Namibia.

          Tourism is important to many African nations as a source of revenue and countries with well-developed tourist facilities include Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Algeria and Cote d’ Ivorie.

          At this juncture we have seen that one of the factors why traditional Africans were down to nature in their thinking and behaviors is because of their wonderful environment which is filled with natural resources.


1.3     The Concept Time

          The actual nature of time has always puzzled scientists and philosophers. This concept time is the most and widely used idea in human existence, yet the most negligible. One facet of human consciousness is the awareness of time. Men feel the passage of time in their personal experience, both physical and psychic and observe it in their environment, both human and nonhuman. Time as experience is a one way flow at a pace that is slow enough to be perceptible. Men feel and think in the time flow. They also act in it, either seizing opportunities or missing them.

          Sir Isaac Newton postulated that there was an absolute time in terms of which everything else is measured. However, there is no way of testing this and many scientists dismiss the question of absolute time as idle metaphysics. The problem was given a new twist in the early 20th century by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity. Time is now considered to be inseparably connected with space and it is customary to talk about space time. The time at which an event occurs and its durations are dependent on relative motion. Each observer or each system has its own time scale. However, the question still remains the subject of controversy.

          Time appears to be more puzzling than space because it seems to flow or pass or else men seem to advance through it. The question of how many seconds per second time flow or advances through it is obviously an absurd one, for it suggests that the flow or advance comprises a rate of change with respect to something else, to a sort of hypertime. But if this hyertime itself flows, then a hyper- hypertime is required, and so on, ad infinitum. Again, if the world is thought of as spread act in space-time, it might be asked whether man’s consciousness advance up a time like direction of this world and if so, how fast? Whether future events pop into existence as the ‘now’ reaches them or are there all along, and how such changes in space-time can be represented, since time is already with the picture.

          In the face of these difficulties, philosophers tend to divide into two sorts: the “process philosophers” and the “philosophers of the manifold”, respectively. Process philosophers such as Alfred North whitehead, an Anglo-American metaphysician who died in 1947 hold that: The flow of time or man’s advance through it is an important metaphysical fact. For the French intuitionist Henri Bergson, this flow can be grasped only by nonrational intuition. Bergson even held that; the scientific concept of time as a dimension actually misrepresents reality.

Philosophers of manifold hold that: The flow of time or man’s advance through time is an illusion. They argue, for example that words such as past, future and now, as well as the tenses of verbs, are indexical expressions that refer to the act of their own utterance. Hence the alleged change of an event from being future to being past is an illusion.

          To say that event is future is to assert that it is later than this utterance; then later yet, when one says that it is in the past, he asserts that it is earlier than that other utterance, “past” and “future” are not real predicates of events, in this view, and change in respect of them is not a genuine change.

          Still on this inquiry into the nature of time, some philosophers also gave their own definition of this concept time. One of the ancient philosophers of the Western world, Plato gave his own definition of time as: “the moving image of eternity”[3]

He left our own world and went to his world of forms, the world of ideas, where he believes that everything in this physical world is imitations of things in the world of form to define time. Aristotle on his part holds that: “Time is the number of motion with respect to before and after”[4] Aristotle thinks that because ‘before’ and ‘after’ apply to magnitude they apply to change and because they apply to change they apply to time.

          St. Augustine in the 5th century A.D drew attention to the fact that while time is the most familiar concept used in the organization of thought and action, it is also the most elusive. He made this view concrete in these words:

“If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know” [5]

In this remark St. Augustine show that time cannot be given any simple illuminating definition.

          Pantaleon Osondu Iroegbu gave his own definition of time thus:

Time is backdrop reality that calculates the unfolding of being, and is made present by the human mind in the human experience of reality-in community”[6].

That time is a backdrop reality for Pantaleon is to show that time is a fundamental reality. It is not just an empty imagination or creation of the human mind. Unlike Mc Taggart who holds that: “Time is not a reality”[7].Mc Taggart took to this extreme view because for him we cannot get hold of time or even sit on it the way we do to space. He asserts that the future is not yet, the past is no longer there neither is the present at still, because once you made mention of any minute it is already a bygone. He then conclude base on this that time does not exist.

          Coming down to the traditional African concept of the nature of time, time is not the clock, ticking there: fast and ongoing, hurrying one from one business to another. Time is a part of nature, an event that was lived daily, naturally and rhythmically. One lived with the gradual unfolding of the day and night. One considered the progressive coming of the seasons: the rainy; to plant and fish; and the dry: to harvest, dry and stock. One waited for, and enacted the feast and market days in which various celebrations of life, love, worship, births and Deaths were done.

          Time is an ingredient part of reality that combined with other entities, concrete things, space, the neighbor, the community, and the other aspects of the universe to make life livable, even in hard “time”. In traditional Africa, time is not pushed to rush things in or out.

          From the above facts, we have seen that we all know what time is. But it is hard to tell exactly what it is. And this factor (time) that helps us to describe and locate any given event is held to be nonending, nonbeginning, linear, and continuous. That time has these properties is established philosophically, without reference to scientific investigation.

          Having seen in this first chapter, the introduction, the definition of the concept Africa, with its features as a whole, and also an inquiry into the nature of time. We shall now in the second chapter below see what some Western classical individual philosophers and some African thinkers take the concept of time to be respectively.

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[1] John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Achor Books, 1970), 21.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysic, trans, Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (London: Yale University Press, 2000), 88 – 89.

[3] Plato, “Timeus, in Mortimer J. Adler (ed) The Great Books (Chicago:Britannica Publications, 1993), 450.

[4] Aristotle, ‘‘Physics’’, in Richard Mckeon, (ed) The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2001), 292.

[5] Harl M. Helms, The Confessions of St. Augustine (Bandra: St. Pauls, 2004), 234.

[6] Pantaleon O. Iroegbu, Kpim of Time, Eternity (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 2004), 150.

[7] Ibid., 151.


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