African Religions and Philosophy by John S. Mbiti

The title for TZR comes from the work of a Kenyan-born, Christian writer and philosopher named John Samuel Mbiti. After conducting extensive fieldwork in the East African countries of Kenya and Uganda, Mbiti wrote and published a very important book in the year 1969, entitled African Religions and Philosophy. This book is often hailed as one of the first significant challenges by an African scholar to colonial, Eurocentric, and Christian ideologies, which had been characterizing African traditional religious ideas and cultural practices as “demonic and anti-Christian” for centuries. As such, the work is an crucial text of post-colonialism.

I first encountered African Religions and Philosophy because the book was a required text for a course that I took in the winter quarter of my freshman year at DePaul University. The course was called HIST 131, “Africa to 1800,” and it was taught by professor Ogenga Otunnu, someone who has since become one of my personal heroes. I took the course because, at the time, I did not know anything about African History, and I was confident that I would learn more new information in that class than in any other class that was offered to me.

Each week, Otunnu gave passionate lectures that never failed to breathe life into the otherwise inaccessible stories of the past; his lectures remained focused on the big picture, and he emphasized the various historiographical traditions of world history. It was in his class that I first learned about colonial, national, and post-colonial interpretations to understanding the past. Those interpretations still inform my work today. Otunnu made an indelible impression on me. He went out of his way to encourage me and to inspire me to read beyond the required material and to set my own standards for success. Needless to say, both his course and the text by Mbiti had a profound impact on my desire to pursue a career in History. Somehow, they helped me break through that wall of disinterest that often stands between our lived experiences and the past.

Professor Otunnu and I at an event at DePaul University in my senior year, 2012.

In African Religions and Philosophy, Mbiti describes two Swahili concepts for time that exist in certain East and Central African societies; these concepts are fascinating because they contrast sharply with what we might consider Western or more-dominant notions of time. They are called the Sasha and the Zamani. The first concept represents spirits or ancestors who are kept alive in the thoughts of people who remember them; this concept is closely associated with the present time, the recent past, and the near future. It refers to the moments that are currently taking place (the most important moments, of course), moments that have recently ended, and moments that are just about to occur.

Mbiti another picture
Scholar John S. Mbiti ~ 2015

By contrast, the second concept (Zamani) represents the limitless graveyard of time. The Zamani is the guarded vault which contains everything that has ever taken place in our collective human story; it is the archive of our memory; and it is the period beyond which nothing can go. But, at the same time, the Zamani is also transcendent, human, and accessible. It is where our ancestors recede when they are no longer remembered by those who are still living. In short, when the last person who can recall an ancestor passes away, then that ancestor also passes on, into history, and into the storehouse of all information. In this way, we are all moving forward, but we are moving forward into the collective past.

How different is this concept from the way we typically think about the past in the so-called Western world? Instead of the past being seen as something that has already happened–indeed, something that is both beyond our control and irrelevant to the way we live our lives–the past is portrayed as something that we are approaching. It is an empty space that we will fill in the future with our actions in the present. In filling that space, we will enter the company of all those who have come before us. The billions of people who have walked this earth, and who, with their actions, have created our reality.

John Samuel Mbiti
Scholar John S. Mbiti ~ 2005

As John Mbiti summarizes, the “Zamani is not limited to what in English is called the past.… Zamani overlaps with [the] Sasha and the two are not separable. [The] Sasha feeds or disappears into [the] Zamani. But before events become incorporated into the Zamani, they have to become realized or actualized within the Sasha dimension. When this has taken place, the events “move” backwards from the Sasha into the Zamani….[which] is the final storehouse for all phenomena and events, the ocean of time in which everything becomes absorbed into a reality that is neither after nor before.” (African Religions and Philosophy, 22)

I started TZR on Saturday, February 1, 2014. At the time, I had been contributing to the collective blog of Loyola University Chicago’s History Graduate Student Association, titled The Lakefront Historian, but I wanted to embark on my own project. I chose the name The Zamani Reader because, five years after I had first encountered these two Swahili concepts, they remained at the center of my thoughts. For me, these two words are so important because they articulate three core aspects of history as a discipline. First, they articulate the complicated relationship between our present and our past, which often stand apart like two mirrors, reflecting an image of one another. While the present remains the most important time of our lives, it is only out of reverence for the past that we continue to experience that time. Second, these concepts articulate the importance of collective stewardship and historical contingency. After all, our past is not something that just happens on its own. Our past happens because we choose to make and re-make it through our daily actions; it continues because we choose to remember it.

Thirdly, these concepts help us to remember that, although one cultural model may dominate society at any given time, there are, and there always have been, alternative ways of understanding the human existence. The discipline of history is largely about re-discovering those alternatives, buried in the Zamani, and putting them into conversation with the Sasha, our lived experience. Similarly, it is important to remember that history is not something that one person can make or that one person can destroy. History is something that we all contribute to, and–like the Zamani, that great ocean of time–it is a place that we are all destined to go.

Logo for The Zamani Reader
Logo for The Zamani Reader ©

Because of its title, one might reasonably assume that TZR is strictly about African history. As you have probably guessed by now, it is not. In reality, the blog has reflected the topics of history that have interested me at any particular moment; and, in this sense, it is most likely to reflect my favorite areas of study (i.e. the Black Diaspora, Southern Florida, Jamaica, slavery, American, African-American, Environmental, Atlantic, and Caribbean or West Indian History). In the past, this blog has served primarily as a forum for me to reflect upon and share the writings that I produced for my studies in graduate school. As such, the blog often showcased what I happened to be studying in my classes at a given time, particularly what my professors had chosen to assign me. As of fall, 2017, TZR is beginning to move in a few new directions. For more on these changes, please see the “About the Blog” page.

In the end, the writings featured here are not perfect and I do not pretend that they are. Many of the posts I publish here are works-in-progress, either by myself or contributing authors. In rare cases, they have gone through a round of edits with a colleague or a professor. Most of the time they have not. These posts are not peer reviewed, and so nothing on TZR should be cited unless it has been fact-checked first. Overall, This is a space meant for trying out new ideas. I believe that I am, and I hope that I always will be, a student of history first and foremost. Beyond that, the most that I can hope for is that TZR will help inspire people the way that professors like Otunnu, and authors like Mbiti, have helped to inspire me. That it will help to encourage others to break through that wall of disinterest that stands between our lived experiences and the past.

Finally, as a student of History, there are times when people expect me to have answers about what happened in the past. Indeed, there are moments when I feel that pressure myself. However, it seems that the age-old adage holds true. The more that I study the past, the less confident I become about what actually “happened” and about where we might be headed. Nonetheless, I am confident about at least one thing: the past is a rich and a bountiful land. We reduce both its beauty and its vastness when we treat it like a place that we can turn to in order to find answers that will confirm our assumptions, biases, and beliefs. Perhaps the past will serve us better when we begin to see it as a reflecting pool, shining back the unlimited possibilities of the human experience, the possibilities that are open to us each day that we have a choice to make.

As Alice once said upon entering Wonderland, “Oh, what a fall I’ve had down that hole, and yet I’m not in the least hurt. I wonder how many miles I fell.” Thanks for visiting TZR, and don’t stop falling. History is a very deep hole. I don’t think we will get hurt.