“African Concept of Time and History”

“African Concept of Time and History”

One of the reasons I like reading African writers and thinkers, especially those who are interested in instructioning the reader about African traditional culture, is not only to understand (Sub-Saharan Africa) African traditional culture and cosmology; studying African indigenous way of life, way of thinking, and way of being in the world, has helped me to understand the connections between Africa and the African Diaspora, as well as the African remnants and practices in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti. I’m interested both in roots and routes, ancestral identity and affiliation and syncretic cultures formed in the so-called New World. For example, let us consider the concept of time and history in (Sub-Saharan Africa) African traditional culture; people in the Caribbean and African American people will be able to relate to both ideas and practices.

“The traditional African understanding of time differs from the Western understanding of time. This has caused many understandings. Westerners have even complained that Africans have no concept of time, but this is not the case. Time for us is not a matter of ‘chronometric exactitude,’ nearly segmented into hours, seconds and minutes. So when scheduling an event, we focus on the event itself rather than on its exact duration. The social interactions that occur because of the event are seen as more important than when exactly the event starts and ends. As in all things African, what is most important is the building of rrelationships.

When it comes to understanding of the past, present and future, some traditional African thought is two-dimensional: it acknowledges a long past and a present, but no future. For others, the future exists but is merely a continuation of the present, so that it can be referred to as the potential present. The Western concept of time as linear, with an indefinite past, a present, and an indefinite future does not exist in traditional thought.

The idea of history progressing towards an ultimate goal is absent in African thinking. The universe was brought by the Supreme Being ‘in order to function according to regular patterns, rhythms and movements… As long as man maintains his proper relations with fellow men and with nature, the universe will continue as it has always done, unless of course, God chooses to change the course of events. The future is understood as an extension of the present, and so those who live wisely in the present will be guaranteed a prosperous tomorrow. However, those who live unwisely, are sure to face the consequences of their choices in the near future.

The event-based concept of time is still very real in Africa today. While one might expect that urban Africa would be different, this is not the case. Instead, we live with a divided or dichotomized view of time. In a professional environment, we value chronological time and so show up on time for work; in a social environment, we are hapoy to interact with people regardless of how long the event takes. It does not matter whether a social event begins ‘on time’ because we expect delays. The time spent waiting is not wasted because it provides an opportunity for valuable interactions and building relationships with others attending the event.”

–Elizabeth Mburu, “African Hermeneutics” (2019)

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