In Summary
  • This immensely gifted man has successfully bridged that duality by living in communion with his family, friends and colleagues. He joined his ancestors aged 87 years.

  • His oft-quoted saying is eminently true in the way he lived: “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”. Fare thee well, man of intellect, faith and integrity.

The death of Prof John Samuel Mbiti, the Kenyan-born philosopher-cum-theologian, has robbed us of an academic giant whose impact is truly global.

In a career spanning six decades, Prof Mbiti was a prolific writer not only on matters religion and philosophy, but also in the areas of family, marriage, love and language. He leaves a legacy that will benefit humankind for generations.

SYSTEMATIC

His publications include over 50 books. The best known among them is African Religions and Philosophy, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge. The book, now celebrating its golden anniversary, has been re-issued almost every year. It is a classic translated into seven languages.

In this great literary undertaking, Prof Mbiti studies the religious beliefs and practices of 300 ethnic groups across Africa. He arrives at a startling philosophical principle.

His systematic study of religions (in the plural) using the empirical method, so as to deduce a general philosophical conclusion (in the singular), is remarkable for several reasons.

For starters, it debunks the myth propagated by some European scholars such as Herbert Spencer and David Hume that there is no philosophy or systematic thought to be derived from the African condition. The scholar’s analysis of the African concept of time remains one of the most original, widely debated and intellectually engaging aspects of his research.

MENTORED

Prof Mbiti was not only a prolific author, but he also mentored budding scholars to publish their research findings. Besides supervising theses, he wrote prefaces and forewords to publications by graduates who had conducted significant research.

Books based on doctoral dissertations by Gwinyai H. Muzorewa from Zimbabwe and Judith Mbula Bahemuka of the University of Nairobi are graced by forewords by Prof John S. Mbiti.

The late professor enjoyed a long, eventful and productive academic career alongside committed service in the Church. Having earned his doctorate, Rev Mbiti became a lecturer of Religious Studies at Makerere in the 1960s and rose to the rank of full professor. His colleagues and students at the college recall his lively debates with contemporaries such as Prof Ali A. Mazrui, the political scientist, and Okot p’Bitek, the celebrated albeit controversial Ugandan poet.

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