African Time: cyclical or linear?

Mmere Dane, the Adrinkan symbol and phrase meaning “time changes.”

This is a brief synopsis of three articles discussing how societies across the African continent understand and perceive time. As usual, these answer some personal questions and open up a range of so many other questions. I hope you find them useful!

Time in traditional African thought by John Parratt

This critique of John Mbiti’s work on how African societies perceive time. Mbiti has asserted that in the African conception of time, the future is non-existent since it looks toward things and events that are yet to happen, thereby nullifying the concept of time as a linear concept composing of a past, present, and future. 

Mbiti asserts that time for the African is composed of a past and a present now being experienced, and a present which has yet to occur but the occurrence of which is certain because it is on the rhythm of nature. Mbiti’s claims are backed by the fact that certain African languages have no words to describe the concept of a future time.

Pratt argues against Mbiti’s assertions claiming that linguistics alone cannot be the basis of Mbiti’s claims about time. He cites another scholar who shows that Niangoran-Bouah in the Ivory Coast used a calendrical system to tell time, largely based on seasonal rituals. This gives rise to the claim that time in many African cultures is regulated based on certain festivals known to be held after certain intervals, for example, the New Yam Festival by the Igbos held in August.

Similarly, the Kaguru and Tiv people are observed to record time-based on events experienced by the collective groups.

This leads to the assertion of time either as oecological – relating to the cycles and rhythms of nature – or structural, relating to a person’s relationship with their society at different phases of life.

For all of his arguments against Mbiti, Parratt concludes that three overlapping circles represent time in the African perspective. He says: “Time in Africa…could perhaps be better illustrated in terms of three successive and partially intersecting circles, representing respectively the mythical past, the remembered past, and the present…a straightforward linear time scale is not involved.”

Parratt, J. (1977). Time in traditional African thought. Religion, 7(2), 117–126.

African Concept of Time, a Socio-Cultural Reality in the Process of Change 

In this paper, the authors explain that African view time as a socio-cultural phenomenon collectively experienced. Furthermore, they argue that time is a phenomenon which stretches beyond the physical realm into an ontological dimension, making it both secular and sacred. 

The authors argue that the significance of time is drawn from daily events – such as milking cattle at sunrise –  or social events – such as planting and harvest seasons.

The authors raise a point about idleness – the gap between the time for planting, harvests, and other communal events. Although, according to Europeans, Africans were often found idle and “wasting time”, the authors argue that idleness was, in fact, “preparation for time”, adding that “the economic circumstance of the day would dictate the pace of activities.”

They argue against Mbiti’s notion of no future in the African conception of time, highlighting the system of checks and balances in the old Oyo Empire, dating back to 1754. The Empire had a plan to prevent any ruling monarch from becoming either despotic or autocratic, thus making it mandatory for the Alaafin to consult the Oyomesi council of chiefs before taking decisions on the affairs of the state. According to the authors, the checks and balances in the Oyo Emirate were in place to ensure a good future and a peaceful one for the Oyo kingdom. 

According to these authors, checks and balances indicate that Africans are conscious of a distant future, contrary to what Mbiti has argued. 

Fumilola Babalola, S., & Ayodeji Alokan, O. (2013). African Concept of Time, a Socio-Cultural Reality in the Process of Change. Journal of Education and Practice, 4(7).

Africa’s understanding of time and history: The line over against the cycle Jan AB Jongeneel

The author argues for linear time over cyclical time while recognizing that many Africans still regard the former over the latter. According to the author, “the power of the cycle in African traditional religions and the power of the symbiosis of the cycle and the line in various circles of African Christianity, African Islam, and African secularism is much bigger than the investigated publications of Mbiti, and Bosch suggests.”

The author attests that many African societies had a cyclical approach to time, however, Judaism, and eventually, Christianity, and Islam, brought the concept of linear time to the continent. It’s worth noting here that Jongeneel asserts that the Jews were bound by “divine historical events”, which places them as forward-looking people who believe in a God that reveals his purpose for humanity over time and who will eventually bring his will to fulfilment in the “eschaton”, or at the end of time.  

This belief is in contrast with the cyclical notion of time which is referred to in the text as “reversed teleology”, where “the final purpose [of human life] is in the past rather than in the future.”

While the author references Mbiti, he introduces new scholars such as John A.A. Ayoade, who is said to have distinguished between various types of time cycles based on the traditions of Yoruba peoples in West Africa. Ayoade differentiates between the celestial/cosmic cycle, primarily concerned with the sun, moon and stars, and the terrestrial/ecological cycle, concerned with the changing seasons.

Jongeneel discusses the presence of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and secularism (humanism and secularism) and how they have shaped the modern perception of time in Africa. The paper also briefly discusses the work of Asian theologians and their views of cyclical time, which is also prevalent in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto.

Jongeneel, J. A. B. (2009). Africa’s understanding of time and history: the line over against the cycle. Missionalia: The South African Missiological Society, 37(3), 37–50.