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Daniel Smith

Time and not the other time in Africa

On Ernest Beyaraza: The African Concept of Time: A Comparative Study of Various Theories

 An essential insight into the history of the continent

Ernest Beyaraza:
The African Concept of Time: A Comparative Study of Various Theories.
Kampala: Makerere University Press,
154 pages
ISBN 9970-418-11-6

Makerere University Press
P.O. Box 7062
Tel. +256 (41) 531530


  The African concept of 'time' has been the focus of a good deal of debate over the course the continent's recent history. The Ugandan philosopher Ernest Beyaraza believes it has been buried in the historical distortions of racism, colonialism, and 'development' for too long. His book, The African Concept of Time, is an attempt to contribute to the ongoing process of mental decolonization which cripples both the colonized and the colonizer in our development as human beings. How is it that such a powerful and prominent thinker within the Western tradition as Hegel could have declared with total conviction that Africa »is not a historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit«. How did the dominance of such an ignorance contribute to Placide Tempels' Bantu Philosophy, and John S. Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy?


  Beyaraza believes, as does Mbiti, that the concept of 'time' offers an essential insight into the history of the continent and its 'underdevelopment'. However, his book's primary focus is to debunk Mbiti's thesis that for Africans, »time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present and virtually no future. The linear concept of time in Western thought, with an indefinite past, present and infinite future, is practically foreign to African thinking«. As a student at Makerere University in Kampala Beyaraza confides that he was quite surprised to learn this. How, he wondered, could such great societies as the Ashanti, the Zulu, the Kitara, and the Mwenemutapa – to mention just a few – could have developed into such powerful centres of civilization with no concept of progress, planning, or future?

 Western philosophy as framework: methodology and comparison

For John Mbiti's concept of African time see:

Bert Hamminga:
The Western versus the African Time Concept.
external linkArticle


  Interestingly Beyaraza tackles the question using a good deal of Western Philosophy. In the opening chapter he provides a brief account of the history of Western Philosophy from the Pre-Socratics, through Hegel's and Marx's dialectics, to such 20th century thinkers as Gilbert Ryle and his "Ghost in the Machine". Not only does the chapter provide a good background for students of philosophy, it can also be read as an autobiographical account of Beyaraza's own preparation. As the author is well aware, the British and analytic influence on the development of academic philosophy in such institutions as Makerere University was quite substantial. Critically reviewing this tradition, in relation to questions concerning the relevance of Philosophy in Africa, Beyaraza makes it clear that, »we need Philosophy, as a means of clarification", in an "age of uncertainty and change«.


  Having clarified the role of philosophy, in relation to uncertainty, change, and ultimately questions concerning the nature of human development, he then goes on to address the question of 'time' in a similar fashion. Recognizing that, »the most available sources«, concerning 'time', »have been from Western Philosophy«, he begins with Aristotle's deduction of the 'time' from 'motion'. Things, including things such as human beings and societies, change. There is an observable continuity to such change, which gives rise to the conception of the 'motion' of a thing. And motion is measured via the concepts of 'time' and 'space'. 'Time', according to Beyaraza's account of Aristotle, is deduced from 'motion', and therefore is "not a substance, but an attribute of an attribute of substance". From there we are off-and-running though 'time' in Plotinus, Augustine, Descartes, Newton, Clarke, Leibniz, Kant, McTaggart, Alexander, Whitehead, Waismann, and finally Wittgenstein, who, according to Beyaraza, suggests that the question itself is a bit queer, and probably one best clarified rather than answered. The problem of 'time', he says, in apparent agreement with Wittgenstein, may be based on a »disorder of thinking«, and »the best way to solve it is to bring about a clear awareness of its causes«.

 The flow of time: questions of future and development

»Far from having no conception of the distant future, and therefore little ability to plan and progress, the very structure of African identity seems to imply a strong sense of the future. This ability to identify with future generations could perhaps be contrasted with the individualism and materialism of the West.«


  Before going on to an account of the historical emergence of questions specifically addressing the African concept of 'time' through an examination of the thinking of such individuals as Hegel, Evans-Pritchard, Achebe, and Kagame, Beyaraza provides an overview of the Arab, Hebrew, Chinese, and Indian conceptions. He draws an interesting contrast between Greek thought that seems to emphasize entropy and Hebrew thought that focuses on creation and fecundity. Thus, what happens through time is conceived of quite differently. At any rate through the course of his reflections he is convinced, and provides his readers with reasons for agreeing, that time is a real continuum and not just a subjective category of mind. Its foundation is in the reality of events. The question then becomes whether or not the African concept of time is based in this reality. Time flows from the past through the present and into the future and is, thus, linear. Therefore, if Mbiti was correct about the African concept of time then one of the great causes of the Continent's underdevelopment would be Africans' inability to conceive of time correctly and to plan for a progressive future.


  Starting with Hegel and Regius, who laboured under the "myth of White superiority", Beyaraza moves through a number of anthropological and sociological perspectives on the concept of 'time' in various African societies. He uses Ivor Wilks's critical review of Hegel and Regius to introduce the notion that those living in the present have a strong sense of identity based in their existence as the essential link between their ancestors and the generations to come in the distant future. Thus, far from having no conception of the distant future, and therefore little ability to plan and progress, the very structure of African identity seems to imply a strong sense of the future. This ability to identify with future generations could perhaps be contrasted with the individualism and materialism of the West. Certainly, if Wilks's analysis is on the right track, then Mbiti's view that African life is ordered by a movement from the present into the past must be mistaken. However, I would want to add that we might, from this African perspective on the nature of human development and time, get a glimpse of how the being of an individual, which in turn is based in the being of the community, moves from present to past. We are the ancestors of the future!

 Conceptions of time in African societies

»Time is a continuum, and it is African's understanding of this that enables them to conceive of distant future events and live with the hope of having these events fulfilled.«


  Evans-Pritchard found through his anthropological work that the Nuer had a "shallow" concept of time. Beyaraza examines these findings and suggests that while the distinction between "oecological" and "structural" conceptions of time might be well founded, he argues that these conceptions are not necessarily "cyclical" as Evans-Pritchard asserted, and therefore the Nuer conception is not "shallow". Rather, Beyaraza finds strong indications of a linear and progressive foundation to time in Nuer society. He then goes on to critically examine the Bohannan's account of 'time' in relation the economy of the Tiv, and John Taylor's investigations regarding the nature of the soul amoung the Baganda, Twi, Yoruba, Zulu, and other groups. He finishes this chapter examining the writing and philosophical implications of Achebe, Amadi, Parrinder, and finally Kagame. In each case he builds his case for a linear African conception of time. Time is a continuum, and it is African's understanding of this that enables them to conceive of distant future events and live with the hope of having these events fulfilled.


  So, we are left wondering, how is it that Mbiti got it so wrong. John Mbiti, like Placide Tempels before him, was primarily concerned with religion in Africa. Tempels' book was concerned to understand why the missionaries of Christianity were finding it so hard to successfully convert Africans at anything but a fairly superficial level. The problem, according to Tempels, was their – Africans' – profound and complex sense of being. Unless the Christian missionaries could understand and bring into critical examination African ontology, they were bound to be frustrated in their desire to truly convert the primitives of Africa into the one true religion – Christianity. Mbiti, too, was motivated to contribute to the development of Christianity in Africa. However, as an African, he believed that the trouble was the distorted eschatological emphasis that had developed in Western Christianity under the influence of Hellenistic civilisation.


  There seems to be a deep ambivalence in Mbiti's desire to both critically examine what to him is the excessively future-oriented conception of the final judgement and apocalyptic nature of Western Christianity, while at the same time welcoming the introduction of the dimension of the future into the African conception of time as a necessary condition of modern development. According to Beyaraza, clearly Mbiti's disdain for a conception of time oriented towards the past that he believes is dominant in African thought emerges as the central thrust of his work. Thus, for Beyaraza, Mbiti lands up dangerously reinforcing the colonial mentality with which the continent and humanity in general are still struggling.

Daniel Smith
is Visiting Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Kunming University of Science and Technology, China.


  In the final chapter, Beyaraza exits the library and ventures into the villages of his own people – the Bakiga. Not surprisingly, he finds ample evidence in the social organization, religion, cosmology, and language of his people that suggest a profound sense of the future. In fact, it would seem that their conception of the future is unlimited. There is not, according to Beyaraza's research, the kind of apocalyptic end of time anticipated in Bakiga worldview. Though Beyaraza does not focus on this implication of his research, it raises the question as to whether Mbiti was partly correct in his criticism of the Western eschatological obsession with some kind of apocalyptic and final judgement. If Mbiti and Beyaraza are right, that in general Africans did not have such an orientation, then the current growth of fundamentalist and apocalyptic forms of Christianity in Africa, and indeed throughout the world, could be assessed as a neocolonial phenomenon that undermines the ability of people to understand and mobilize themselves in relation to a progressive and positive vision of their future. At any rate, clearly more work needs to be done, but certainly Beyaraza has made an important contribution to our understanding of 'time', not only in Africa, but in relation to human development as a whole.

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