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The Kairos of Karos: Revisiting Notions of Temporality in Africa

Written by sankofa

– By Cilliers Johan

“You (Western people) have watches; we (African people) have time.” This piece of folklore, mostly spoken tongue-in-cheek, has often resulted in either mirth, or irritation. Does this, for instance, imply that Western people are (always) on time, i.e. always punctual (in line with German Pünktlichkeit!), and that African people are always late, missing “deadlines”, frustrating any attempt at timely “organising” an event? Or is it simply a way of saying that African people are not driven or mastered by any notion of “time”?

Does the piece of folklore in fact articulate a more fundamental divide between Western and African understandings – and experiences – of time?

Few African scholars have contributed more to the discussion of “African Time” than John Mbiti, whose work has, on the one hand, been described as “the classic expression of African philosophy”, but, on the other, has also become contested and at times even highly controversial. In his book, African Religions and Philosophy, published in 1969, Mbiti argues that Africans indeed have particular notions of time. According to Mbiti, African understanding of time is event-orientated rather than mathematically-calculated. Mbiti is of the opinion that “Time as separate [entity] does not “move”; only events come and go …” His concern indeed seems not to be with “Western notions of abstract time which can be measured apart from events.”

This event-orientated approach does have certain consequences for Mbiti’s use of the (traditional) terms of “past, present, and future”. According to him past events serve as markers for, and of time. Looking “backwards” from the present, decisive events in the history of a community is seen as events that shape, or at least situate the present moment. “Now” can only be understood in the light of “then”. The past is described in terms of events: “In the time of the great drought of 1954 “In the time of the floods of 1917 …” etc. And, because the future does not (yet) contain events, the future cannot be understood as a long period – rather as short and foreseeable, stretching to six months and not beyond two years. It is rather the significant events of the past that define the present reality and tomorrow. In the words of Mbiti himself:

The linear concept of time in western thought, with an indefinite past, present and indefinite future is practically foreign to African thinking. The future is virtually absent because events which lie in it 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. It moves “backward” rather than “forward”; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place.

Contrasted to the notion of actual time, Mbiti speaks of potential time -that which lies in the (near) future, and which falls “… in the category of inevitable or potential time … The most significant consequence of this is that, according to traditional concepts, time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present and virtually no future “What lies beyond the immediate (inevitable) future, could be described as “no time” (see diagram underneath)

Mbiti’s understanding of African time relies heavily on the Kiikamba “tene period” or Kiswahili word, Zamani (originally Arabic) “as the centre of gravity in the Akamba conception of history: people’s history and thinking and understanding of the world are oriented toward this finality …” He outlines his conception of the present using the notion of Sasa, (which could roughly be translated as “present”), but which is embedded in the “past” as Zamani. Events take place within the Sasa dimension, before moving “backwards” from Sasa into the Zamani. In a sense, Zamani is the beginning and end of everything. But, although being two dimensions of time, Zamani and Sasa are not separable. There is a reciprocal feeding into one another. Therefore, for instance, the ancestors are not absent in the present, but rather contemporary.

Although it is not that easy, or even appropriate to define Mbiti’s understanding of African time in exact terms, and although one runs the risk of again interpreting him according to Western (i.e. linear) constructs.

Sasa (the present) is in itself a complete time dimension – having its own short future, dynamic present and an experienced past. This is called micro time. Zamani is more than just “past” – it also has its own “past”, “present”, and “future”. This could be called macro time. Zamani is the point beyond which nothing can go – it is the “graveyard” where all time and all events find their halting point, a type of final store house for time; the ocean of time in which everything is absorbed into reality. In effect, Zamani is used to describe “the stretches of time into timeless eternity.”

According to this African understanding, time rather moves from present (Sasa) to past (Zamani), and not so much from past, to present, to future. Sasa is about that which is of immediate concern for people; it stretches into a relatively short future; it swallows up so-called “future”. Past and present overlap and the present is swallowed up in the past; past and present come to rest in the graveyard of time. The present exists to serve the past, which in turn gives purpose to the present. In short: the present does not so much influence the future, as it serves the past. The difference with Western time would then be that the so-called Western “future” extends much further than the African “future”.

Some critics of Mbiti have stated that he practises a type of “reversed teleology”, in which time is conceived backwards. But this critique is indeed only valid if “time” is indeed understood as a linear unfolding of past, present, and future – which could be measured (mathematically) in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc. Only if one evaluates Mbiti’s understanding of time from this linear, temporal-mathematical perspective, one could say that his African concept of time is the “mirror opposite” of the West. Of course Mbiti knows that Western and even certain Biblical concepts of time mostly operate with a linear perspective, but regarding the latter, he concludes that “though widely accepted as the only scriptural one, [it] is not the only valid one, but that the two-dimensional concept of time is equally valid.”

This idea of actual time and potential time – Mbiti’s so-called two-dimensional (or: dyadic) concept of time has however been criticised as not being representative for the whole of Africa. African understandings of time – as understood by Mbiti, amongst others – has indeed changed with the coming of the Christian missionaries to Africa – the latter exposing African temporality to a more linear take on time. Especially Mbiti’s postulation of African time as being short on future has come under critique. It has for instance been pointed out that in the “house-rules” of the old Oyo Kingdom of the South West Nigeria (1754-1796) there were certain checks and balances built in to prevent the monarch from being despotic or autocratic – clearly an indication that even then, Africans had a longer, more extended view on the future. Mbiti himself does contend that the cycle of seasons will “continue forever” – an indication that his own understanding of the “future” is not that short-sighted as many would believe it to be.

Mbiti’s concept of time does in fact accept the linear progression of time as one dimension, but also stresses the communal dimension, namely that time is “created” by events within community. For him, African notions of time hinges on the timing of event. Time is tied to events. In other words, time must be experienced to become real for people, and, only the past and the present have been experienced by anyone. For Mbiti, time is composed of events, and events must be experienced to be real.

Time has to be experienced in order to make sense or to become real … Since what is the future has not been experienced, it does not make sense; it cannot, therefore, constitute part of time, and people do not know how to think about it – unless, of course, it is something which falls within the rhythm of natural phenomena.

These events are however of a communal nature and relevance: “Time is not duration as it affects the fate of the individual, but it is the rhythm of the breathing of the social group.” Perhaps it could even be postulated that the image of a spiral depicts best what Africans understand as time – a spiral that includes both linear and cyclical dimensions – the latter inclusive of (cyclical) events such as droughts, seasons, even rituals, etc.

In my opinion, African notions of time, as for instance put forward by Mbiti, remind us of the importance of “now”. Could it be said that Western understandings of temporality either become fixated with the (guilt and/ or glamour of the) past, or endeavour to escape to the (planning and/or developing of the) future? That it could in fact lose out on the promise of the presence?

To put it in even more contentious words: there is, in fact, no such thing as the “past” or the “future”. The past is the past (i.e. no longer there), and the future is the future (i.e. not yet there). The only thing that is “there” is “here”, i.e. now. By this, I am obviously not saying that the past never happened, or that – hopefully – the future will never happen. But we do not “have” past or future; we only “have” now.

This comes close to what Saint Augustine – another African! – said concerning time. According to him, it is in fact not correct to talk about three separated times (past, present, future). He prefers to speak about a present of things that have already happened, a present of things that are happening, and a present of things that must still happen. In his own words:

Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.

Time is all about the connection between events (past, present, future), as experienced in the “now” – but then this “now” should also not be understood in the traditional (mathematical) way as being one point in time in a linear unfolding of times. “Now” takes on a new meaning, at least within African thinking. If we follow Saint Augustine’s argument, all that we have of the past are memories, monuments, sites, recordings, etc. – but we can only access them now, in the present. All that we have of the future are things like projections, expectations, hope – but likewise, we can only access them now, in the present. This “access” represents a type of “timetravel” in the mind and imagination, a “time-travel” that however always takes place “now”.

As popular as the notion of real, i.e. physical “time-travel” might be -travelling to the past or the future – it cannot be done, at least not yet! We are (always) in the now of now. What was in the past that is accessed in the present by means of memory, etc., and what will be in the future that is accessed in the present by means of hope, etc. calls for observation and interpretation in the present. In terms of the topic of this paper, this process of observation and interpretation could also be called: preaching.

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