Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2563

Article abstract: Collecting and synthesizing indigenous concepts of God, myths and stories, prayers, and proverbs into a religiously oriented “African worldview,” Mbiti has explored the complex relationship between African and Christian ontology, theology, and ethics.

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Early Life

John Samuel Mbiti, one of six children born to Samuel Mutuvi Ngaangi and Valesi Mbandi Kiimba, was the first to survive; thus, John Samuel was surnamed “Mbiti” (literally “hyena,” symbolically “a child vowed unto God”), the name being in effect a prayer in thanksgiving and for survival. His strongly Christian family saw to his religious Westernized academic education, through the African Inland Church; Alliance High School near Nairobi, Kenya; and University College of Makerere, Kampala, Uganda, an “external college” of the University of London. Influenced by a combination of his name, an early personal religious experience, and his undergraduate studies and teachers, Mbiti was moving toward the priesthood when he graduated from Makerere in 1953. He received another bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of theology degree from Barrington College in Rhode Island in 1956 and 1957, lectured on religion in Kenya and in England in the late 1950’s, and earned a Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge University in 1963. His doctoral dissertation, “Christian Eschatology in Relation to the Evangelisation of Tribal Africa,” was of seminal importance for his subsequent theological and philosophical writing. His ordination in the Church of England followed his graduation from Cambridge.

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. Evidently, Mbiti was fascinated by the entire process—the stories themselves, the dramatic and poetic narration, the moral and practical lessons they taught, and broadly, the entire vision of the Akamba world they presented. He wrote and published a novel, Mutunga na Ngewa Yake (1954), numerous poems and short stories, and an English-Kamba Vocabulary (1959). Beyond these, he sought out and recorded about fifteen hundred traditional stories, publishing a representative selection as Akamba Stories (1966).

By the age of about thirty, Mbiti was both a budding Christian theologian and a collector and student of materials illuminating portions of traditional African life. At the root of his activities was a profound sense of the needs of a changing Africa, especially its young people. Both Christianity (including Western technological civilization) and African traditionalism were necessary; neither alone was sufficient. Mbiti saw that a conjoining of these elements, a syncretism, must occur, and he would make a major contribution.

Life’s Work

Mbiti’s approach to the problem of syncretism has always been religious, but initially it was specifically theological. His 1963 Cambridge dissertation, published in 1971 as New Testament Eschatology in an African Background , 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...

(The entire section contains 2563 words.)

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