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.

Of Cycles, and What Happens When We Die

Owuo Atwedee, the Adrinka symbol known as “ladder of death”, representing man’s mortality

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere just marked the Vernal Equinox. This is the day the Sun crosses the equator and begins traveling towards the Southern part of the globe. Having spent the last six months in darkness (think shorter days, winter), the Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The keenly observant will notice more hours of sunlight, aka, longer days. 

As one part of the world embraced more light, another part begins to experience its absence. The Southern Hemisphere also just marked the beginning of Autumn, a period which is largely characterized by long nights and shorter days. 

In African traditional thought, it is believed that our lives, and indeed death, are continuous events not unlike the cycles we observe in nature such as the beginning of Spring and Autumn which both occur at the same time but mean and look different depending on which side of the equator one finds themselves. 

Death is perceived not as an ending, rather, as a continuation of a cycle that began before we materialized in this realm and will continue long after our souls have taken flight from it. The beliefs of the Akan, a group now predominantly in modern-day Ghana, put this in perspective. 

From Nyame We Came… 

According to the Akan, our lifeforce (soul) comes from the genitrix deity and creator of the universe, Nyame Amowia, whose physical manifestation is the moon. It is believed that a child is born after it receives the life force, known as Kra, given by the Sun deity, Nyankopon, who acts on behalf of Nyame Amowia. Sometimes a child might receive the Kra of an ancestor who failed in a previous life to be a good human. Nyankopon condemns such a person’s soul to perpetual reincarnation until a descendant reincarnated on earth attains good spiritual standing. It is only then that the soul can once again become one with Nyame’s eternal Kra (Meyerowitz, 1951).

The Kra is often mistaken with a closely related concept known as the Honhom which translates to “breath.” The Akan are known to say “ne honhom ko,” when a person passes away. This translates to, “his breath is gone.” Alternatively, they say “nekra afi ne ho,” translating to “his soul has withdrawn from his body” (Frimpong, 2011). 

…To Nyame We Shall Return

While the statements above are similar, Kra and Honhom are two distinguishable concepts. Honhom, breath, inadvertently symbolizes the presence of Kra in any living human being. Consequently, when a person dies (stops breathing), it is said that the Honhom leaves, and, logically, the Kra is also believed to have departed from the body (Danquah, 1952).

After death, it is said that the Honhom flies back, in the shape of a bird, to the mother and creator of the universe, Nyame. The soul, however, is left to labor up a steep hill until it reaches Nyankopon who will then judge and determine if the soul has to return (reincarnate) to earth, or if it can proceed to become one with the Nyame. 

The Dead are Never Dead

According to Okwu (1979), in African traditional thought, the physical plane of existence where humans inhabit and the spiritual plane are essentially two sides of the same coin. As such, life on earth can be explained as the side of the coin where the soul, “the seed of the creator” is seen to exist in a conscious, physical, and integrated union with the material body. Consequently, across various African belief systems, death is not regarded as the end of existence, rather as the ultimate rite of passage each human being has to go through (Okwu, 1979).

The belief in a spiritual plane of existence – unseen, untouched, and inaccessible to us humans – fuels ancestral veneration, or what many Western scholars have inaccurately referred to as “ancestral worship.” Okwu (1979) states: “the members of the supernatural world are regarded as an integral part of the material world. This implies that in important human social functions, such as marriages, birth and naming ceremonies, initiation, and healing, the opinions and/or approval of the members of the spirit plane are not merely invoked and observed; their participation and benediction are also requested.” (Okwu, 1979). 

John Mbiti, a foremost scholar of African religions, asserts that even the language used when talking about death and dying across various parts of the Continent often implies a sort of home-going for the departed. This is also indicated by various customs and rituals which can be observed during funerals. For example, various groups across the Continent are known for burying their dead with various paraphernalia and household items such as food, stools, tobacco, clothing, etc. These items are believed to be needed on the journey to the next world (Mbiti, 1970).

So What?

Across the Continent, many beliefs are cyclical rather than linear in nature. This means that many cultures hold the belief that life has no end; like the sun, our souls continue to move in a cyclical motion. We are a part of the divine before we are born and when our breath and soul leave our physical bodies, they continue to journey on a path that ultimately leads back to the creator. As Mbiti (1970) says: “death is death and the beginning of a permanent ontological departure of the individual from mankind to spirithood.”


Danquah, J. B. (1952). The Culture of Akan. Africa22(4), 360–366. 10.2307/1156919

Frimpong, A. D. (2011, December 1). Purity And Impurity: Menstruation And Its Impact On The Role Of Akan Women In The Church. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Mbiti, John. S. (1970). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.

Meyerowitz, E. L. R. (1951). Concepts of the Soul among the Akan of the Gold Coast. Africa21(1), 24–31. 10.2307/1156155

Okwu, A. S. O. (1979). Life, Death, Reincarnation, and Traditional Healing in Africa. Issue: A Journal of Opinion9(3), 19. 10.2307/1166258