Reading John Mbiti from Uganda

The late Mbiti is praised for indigenizing Christianity. However, his veneration of "African" tradition also served as theological justification for authoritarian rule.

Idi Amin addressing clergy. Image from Uganda Broadcasting Corporation.

John Mbiti died at the start of October 2019, at the age of 87. His 1969 book African Religions and Philosophies set the parameters for a whole field of scholarly inquiry: it powerfully showed that African philosophical and religious traditions were consistent and sensible, and that they could be understood as a religious system, and not as superstition. The eulogies have—rightly—been full of praise. Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta hymned him as “a role model and an ambassador for the Kenya brand abroad”; while Raila Odinga, sometime leader of the opposition, described his book as “an eye-opener and groundbreaking work.”

The praise from Kenya’s leading public figures make it easy to ignore the fact that Mbiti’s scholarly career was largely defined in Uganda, at Makerere University, where he was appointed lecturer in 1964, and where he taught until 1974. Thinking about John Mbiti as a Ugandan intellectual sheds light on the genealogy of his scholarship. It also helps us see how his scholarly preoccupations with tradition could also offer a theological justification for tyranny. In these days following Professor Mbiti’s passing, it is worth thinking through where the notion of “African traditional religion” came from, and where it leads, politically, and culturally.

At the time of his appointment at Makerere, Mbiti was already an accomplished writer, with a PhD from Cambridge University and an impressive scholarly and political network. He had published his first book, Mũtũnga na Ngewa Yake (Mutunga and his Story), in 1954; in 1955 he had published a kiKamba translation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. These and other early works of translation gave Mbiti a vocation as a spokesman for African language and cultures. In 1959, he presented a paper—titled “Reclaiming the Vernacular Literature of the Akamba tribe”—at the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome, the most important trans-national collective of African, Caribbean, and African-American writers and artists at the time. The paper was later published in the negritude journal Présence Africaine. A few months later he published, also in Présence Africaine, an essay entitled “Christianisme et religions indigenes au Kenya.”

The Makerere University that Mbiti joined in 1964 was full of creative, politically engaged scholars. At the center of all of this was Transition magazine, edited by Rajat Neogy with the assistance of the political scientist Ali Mazui, the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, and others. There were short stories from the South African Bessie Head, essays from Nigerian Wole Soyinka, fiction from Brit Paul Theroux, and philosophy from Ugandan Okot p’Bitek. Makerere lecturers were regular contributors to Transition. Among them was Fred Welbourn, whose East African Rebels (1961) had powerfully argued for the political rationality of dissident Christian movements. Another contributor was Bethwell Ogot, who was at the time of Mbiti’s appointment revising the book that would be published as History of the Southern Luo (1967). Dozens of students taught by Ogot and other Makerere historians were engaged in the History of Uganda project, which involved the collection of oral histories from rural elders. All of these scholars were public figures, and all of them saw themselves as contributing toward the building of a specifically African university, furnished with a curriculum that responded to the priorities of the age.

Mbiti published two works in Transition during those years. His first, “Masks of Fear,” appeared in 1965. It is a poem whose paranoid protagonist is a “solitary street traveler,” afraid to cross the street, fearing death around every corner. His second poem, “The Snake Song” (1966), went as follows:

I have neither legs nor arms
But I walk on my belly
And I have
Venom, venom, venom!

I have neither bows nor guns
But I flash fast my tongue
And I have
Venon, venom, venom!

I have neither radar nor missiles
But I stare with my eyes
And I have
Venom, venom, venom!

There is a lovely creativity about these poems. Here Mbiti feels free to experiment, try on authorial voices that are not his own, invest unlikely characters with voice and meaning. It must have been a relief, as source of wonder and enjoyment at a time when so much serious work had to be done.

Professor Mbiti published his African Religions and Philosophies in 1969. The book was composed to fulfill Mbiti’s obligations to an academic discipline which was, under his stewardship, coming into view. Here there was no space for experimentation with literary voice. He wrote it as a course of lectures on African religions, the first of its kind in Makerere’s curriculum. The book laid out, in chapter after chapter, a systematic theology for African traditional religion. Their outward diversity notwithstanding, Mbiti argued, African religions shared an underlying structure: a veneration for the divine, a sacred sensibility, rituals, an awareness of evil, an account of creation. The book was a work of huge ambition, a powerful argument for the intellectual integrity of a religious system.

In his own time Mbiti’s account of traditional religion was subject to a scathing criticism from his colleague, the anthropologist and poet Okot p’Bitek, whose African Religions in Western Scholarship was published in 1970. Okot argued that Mbiti and other scholars had forced the changeable dynamics of African religious practice into the foreign categories of western theology. “The African deities of the books, clothed with the attributes of the Christian God, are, in  the main, creations of the students of African religions,” he wrote. Mbiti must surely have known of Okot’s criticism, but he made no public response. The same year that Okot’s criticism was published Mbiti brought out his second book, Concepts of God in Africa. It was published for the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. For Mbiti it was essential that African religions be grasped systematically. In Kampala, he offered regular lectures to young priests-in-training on the subject of traditional religion and Christianity. His scholarly work was an aspect of his larger vocation: he was opening up paths of comparison and mutual dialogue between Christianity and African religions.

Pastors’ Conference, Makerere University, September 1971. Credit Uganda Broadcasting Corporation.

By January 1971—when General Idi Amin overthrew Milton Obote and became president of the Second Republic of Uganda—John Mbiti was Professor and Head of the Department of Religion. A scant two weeks after the coup President Amin’s secretary wrote to Mbiti to ask for his views on a new initiative: a new Ministry of Religious Affairs, with political and administrative powers over religious organizations. There were several questions for Mbiti to address: “Do you seriously think that there is a need for such a Ministry?” and “What field of responsibility would the Ministry cover in relation to religious affairs?”

Mbiti was thrilled at the prospect. In the heady days immediately following Milton Obote’s overthrow there were throngs celebrating on the streets of Kampala, heralding Amin as a liberator. Were the chants echoing in his study as he composed his letter? In six-page typed pages he laid out, in numbered paragraphs, a series of justifications for government supervision over religious life. Uganda had known too much religious conflict, Mbiti wrote. “Some of the conflicts took on political forms, others tribal, some even had backing from outside countries.” The new ministry would reduce conflict between religions through “reconciliation, mediation, or even the use of governmental powers.” Moreover it would allow for easier coordination between different service agencies. While universities could enable dialogue in small-scale settings, “the practical meaning of dialogue would best be achieved under governmental initiative, supervision, and encouragement.”  There were organizational reasons for the new bureaucracy, too: Mbiti hoped it might provide accountants for parishes struggling with their finances.

The most remarkable part of Professor Mbiti’s letter came under point 10, where he set out a theological rationale for Amin’s dictatorship. “African traditional life does not have a vision between secular and sacred, between what is religious and what is not,” he argued. “The division of life into religious and secular compartments was imported into Africa from Europe” under colonial government. Mbiti argued that:

… this division has greatly undermined and ignored a basic African philosophy in which the universe in the whole of life are conceived religiously, and in which the spiritual realities and physical realities are only two dimensions of the same basic concept of existence.

Mbiti was cribbing from his scholarly writing. It is “unnatural for African people to be made to live a divided life,” he told Idi Amin’s secretary, “and we have to safeguard against such a division.” Europe and America had already paid the price for their secularism: the evidence could be seen in the “rebellion of their young people against authority, tradition, and so on.”

Professor Mbiti was confident that Idi Amin’s government could mend the division between the sacred and the secular. The new Ministry of Religious Affairs would:

… be a concrete symbol and expression of the basic African philosophy that the whole of life is a deeply religious experience. In setting up this ministry, Uganda would be reasserting a profoundly African heritage which our colonial past has eclipsed and in many ways undermined seriously.

“We are very fortunate in that our leaders are religious people, and Africans are not embarrassed about expressing their religious life in practical terms,” he wrote. The new ministry was “consistent with our heritage.”

In these heady days, that is where John Mbiti’s religious thought led him: toward an embrace of Amin’s dictatorship. Working from a theological position which asserted that African religions were—or ought to be—unified in their consonance with ancestral tradition, Mbiti saw in Idi Amin’s administration a vehicle by which to bring dissension, argument, and debate to an end. Here was an infrastructure for religious unification.

He could not have know that, in the years that followed, Idi Amin would make the project of religious unification into a brutal campaign against dissenters. In May 1971, a few months after Mbiti’s letter, Amin convened a week-long conference involving hundreds of Islamic, Catholic, and Anglican leaders. There were committees to discuss the problems facing each religion; each committee was chaired by a government minister. There was no space for Quakers, Pentecostals, or other non-conformist religious movements in Idi Amin’s conference hall. In the speech that opened the conference President Amin averred that

… religion must be a source of togetherness … This government does not believe that any religion or religious organizations should tolerate any tendencies that bring about … disunity among people who profess the same religion.

In 1975 Idi Amin’s government outlawed dozens of religious denominations—the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Bahais, the African Israel Church and many others—as dangerous to peace and order. Their buildings were seized by government; their archives were destroyed; and some of their leaders were executed by Amin’s men.

In those vexed and dangerous times a great many intellectuals fled Uganda, seeking refuge in other places. In October 1972 Frank Kalimuzo, the Vice-Chancellor of Makerere University, was seized by Amin’s men and murdered. Ali Mazrui fled to my institution, the University of Michigan, where he was to become a leading interpreter of African and African-American history. John Mbiti remained at his post in Makerere even as the institution folded around him. In 1971 he published New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, and in the years that followed he brought out several other works: translations of African Religions and Philosophies in French and German; an edition of his inaugural lecture; a book about prayer and African religion.

In 1973 Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi visited Uganda, and before an audience at Makerere University he offered to furnish Idi Amin with funds to effect the transformation of Uganda into an Islamic country. In response Professor Mbiti delivered a sermon to a packed audience at Makerere’s chapel. “Christianity and Africa have fallen in love with each other, and intend to live in bonds of a lifelong marriage,” he said. “Christianity is here to stay.” It was an act of great courage. A few months later Professor Mbiti—doubtless fearing for his life—fled Uganda and took up the directorship of the Ecumenical Institute in Geneva where he was to spend the remainder of his life.

The first essay that Professor Mbiti wrote after coming to Geneva, titled “The Future of Christianity in Africa,” was sunnily optimistic about the future of African Christianity: against pessimistic predictions that Christianity would die with the end of colonialism, Mbiti highlighted how quickly the faith was growing. African religion, Mbiti argued, had prepared the ground for Christianity, ensuring its rapid spread. Mbiti did not write about the dangers that he had personally faced as one of the leading spokesmen for Uganda’s Christianity. Neither did he write about Janani Luwum, Bishop of Uganda, who had been murdered by Amin’s men the year before “The Future of Christianity in Africa” was published. The African religion about which Mbiti wrote was an abstraction, a set of principles and dogmas that were disconnected from the real world of conflict and terror.

How ought we remember John Mbiti? He was one of the architects of the curriculum of multiculturalism. Working from Kampala, he helped to define a whole world of ritual and thought. It is right that he should be honored and celebrated, for his work greatly enabled a more respectful, more sympathetic, and more systematic engagement between religious traditions.

And yet, in our own time, it is important to remember how quickly calls for cultural integrity can become engines for nativism and intolerance. From his lecture hall at Makerere John Mbiti conjured up a religious order in which people fit seamlessly into a theological system that governed their thought and dictated their dispositions. Mbiti’s view of African religious life—as integrated, whole, and all-embracing—made non-conformists seem to be opponents of good order. His scholarly work converged with the Amin regime’s bloody efforts to root out dissenters, target minorities, and impose political conformity on Uganda’s people.

Further Reading