Bio of the Week: John Mbiti

The theme for our weekly instalment, ‘Biography of the Week’, in the month of January is African Philosophers. Each week, the biographies and works of philosophers hailing from Africa will be celebrated. Of the numerous past and present philosophers Africa has produced, the four sages we are covering are John Samuel Mbiti,  Kwasi Wiredu, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze  and Valentin-Yves Mudimbe. This week we begin with John Samuel Mbiti.

John Samuel Mbiti
“I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.”
-John Samuel Mbiti 

John Samuel Mbiti, “the father of contemporary African theology”, is a philosopher and as of 2005 an Emeritus professor at the University of Bern and a parish minister to the town of Burgdorf, Switzerland. Collecting and synthesizing indigenous concepts of God, myths, stories, prayers, and proverbs into a religiously oriented “African worldview.” Mbiti, in his works, explores the complex relationship between African and Christian ontology theology, and ethics.

Born on 30 November 1931 in Mulango, Kitui, Kenya, Mbiti is one of six children of  Samuel Mutuvi Ngaangi and Velesi Mbandi Mutuvi of the Akamba people. He was the first child to survive childbirth, thus he was given the surname ‘Mbiti’ which literally means ‘hyena’ and symbolically means ‘a child vowed unto God’- the surname being in effect a prayer in thanksgiving and for survival. As a child, Mbiti worked in the fields and herded stock; he also went to the local missionary school called the African Inland Church. After that Mbiti attended primary school at Kitui before attending Alliance High School in 1946 near Nairobi.

Mbiti’s development as a promising young Christian academic is, however, only half the story. He is a member of the Akamba people, who occupy Ukambani, an area in eastern and south-central Kenya. As a boy and a young man, Mbiti was systematically and deeply immersed in Christian life and doctrine. His education was Christian and Western; it was not traditional and African. There was, however, another, informal education for young Mbiti—Akamba stories and the art of storytelling.

It was the combination of his Christian academic training and his informal education that inspired Mbiti to write his first novel, Mutunga Na Ngewa Yake, while attending high school. He went on to write a second novel, however, the missionaries responsible for assessing and recommending publications lost the only manuscript.
Having completed high school, in 1949 Mbiti went to study at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, which was an external college of the University of London. Majoring in English and Geography, Mbiti was the one of University’s first students to graduate with a degree. As a student, Mbiti was also involved in the Christian life of the University community and it was during this period that he decided to take up the ministry.

After graduating with a BA in 1953, Mbiti taught for some time at his home school in Kenya. Around this time, he started collecting traditional stories and proverbs. Mbiti then went to the United States of America (US) to study at Barrington College (now Gordon-Barrington College). After a period of two years, Mbiti obtained an AB and a Th.B at Barrington College. He then went back to Kenya to teach at the Teacher Training College at Kangundo, and at the same time doing iterant preaching. Mbiti was offered the William Paton Lectureship, which saw him back in the United States as a visiting lecturer at the Sally Oak Colleges from 1956 to 1960.

Mbiti went on to do his doctoral studies in New Testament studies at Cambridge University, and obtained his Ph.D. in 1963. While at Cambridge he met his wife Verena Siegenthaler from Switzerland whom he married in 1965. The Oxford University Press published the results of his research in 1971 as New Testament Eschatology in an African Background: A Study of the Encounter Between New Testament Theology and African Traditional Concepts. Mbiti’s approach to the problem of syncretism has always been religious, but initially it was specifically theological. In New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, Mbiti inquires into the deepest psycho-spiritual grounds whereupon Africans and Christians might meet. These grounds are eschatological; that is, they draw on a concern, shared in traditional Akamba society and in Christianity, with the ultimate destiny of human beings. For each, as Mbiti reads the Akamba and the New Testament, this destiny is both otherworldly and corporate. After a relatively brief period of several generations as “living-dead,” the Akamba lose individual personhood to a generalized spiritual status in the endlessly receding past, the Tene. Christians, too, understand their being spiritually, but not in the distant past—nor, Mbiti argues, in the future. Instead, they see their spirituality in the present/presence of Christ, whereby individuals become a “many-in-one.”

Ordained to the Anglican orders in 1963, Mbiti served for fifteen months in St. Michael's parish at St. Albans, near London. From 1964 to1974, he was lecturer and later professor at Makerere University, Uganda, teaching New Testament, theology, African religion, and other world religions. Mbiti also assisted in the chapel ministry.

His skills as a researcher and an author resulted in his well-known African Religions and Philosophy first published in 1969. It was Mbiti’s first work to challenge Christian assumption that traditional African religious ideas were "demonic and anti-Christian". His sympathetic treatment of traditional religions was based on massive field work. Mbiti is clear that his interpretation of these religions is from a firmly Christian perspective, and this aspect of his work has sometimes been severely criticized. Considered by the author to have been merely a compilation of lecture notes brought together at his students' request, the worldwide response to this publication came as an unexpected surprise to him. With time Mbiti produced an increasing number of publications that have made an impact on the African theological scene. The next two decades saw the publication of (among others) Concepts of God in Africa (1970), Love and Marriage in Africa (1973), The Prayers of African Religion (1975) and Bible and Theology in African Christianity (1986). Besides his well-known books he has published over 400 items including books, articles, essays, poems, and book reviews in the fields of Christianity, theology, biblical studies, ecumenics, literature and African religion. 

From 1974 to 1980 he served as director and professor at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at the Château de Bossey in Geneva. After that he took up full time parish ministry in Burgdorf in the Reformed Church of Bern, Switzerland, where he served from 1981 until he retired in 1996. From 1983 to 2003 he taught on part-time basis at the Faculty of Theology, University of Bern, as professor of the Science of Mission and Extra-European Theology. He has been a visiting professor at various universities and seminaries in Africa, Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.A. In recognition of his contribution to the church and academic knowledge, he has been awarded three honorary doctorate degrees: LHD (h.c.) in 1973 by Barrington College, U.S.A., the Dr. Theol. (h.c.) in 1991 by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland and the D.D. (h.c.) in 1997 by the General Theological Seminary, New York. 

Mbiti played a most important role in placing biblical studies and cultural heritage in the midst of the theological process. His main thrust and contribution in publications and teaching have been in the framework of African Heritage, Biblical, Ecumenical and Inter-religious studies. He maintains that the Bible is the guide and indispensable tool of theological reflection and articulation; that theology is the product of the universal church in its local and global dimensions; and that the peoples of Africa remain largely and deeply religious in outlook and practice. He sees the theological task in Africa as being enormous, and feels that individual theologians can best tackle it in the spirit of the proverb that says: "One person cannot embrace the baobab tree." 

He is married to Verena Mbiti-Siegenthaler and they have four children, a son Kyeni Samuel, and daughters Maria Mwende, Esther Mwikali, and Anna-Kavata. 

Selected Works:

Akamba Stories. Oxford Library of African Literature. Oxford University Press (1966)
Poems of Nature and Faith. Poets of Africa. East African Publishing House (1969).
African Religions and Philosophy. African Writers Series. Heinemann [1969] (1990)
Concepts of God in Africa. London: SPCK (1970)
New Testament Eschatology in an African Background. Oxford University Press (1971)
Love and Marriage in Africa. London: Longman (1973)
Introduction to African Religion. African Writers Series. Heinemann [1975] (1991)
The Prayers of African Religion . London: SPCK (October 1975)
Bible and Theology in African Christianity. Oxford University Press (1987)
African Proverbs. Pretoria: UNISA Press (1997)


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