Professor John Mbiti presenting on "peace, justice and dignity" at the All Africa Conference of Churches 10th Assembly in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Photo: Naveen Qayyum/WCC

Professor John Mbiti presenting on "peace, justice and dignity" at the All Africa Conference of Churches 10th Assembly in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Photo: Naveen Qayyum/WCC

* By Fredrick Nzwili


Kenyan religious leaders, scholars, students and ordinary people have mourned Prof. John Samuel Mbiti, world-renowned Christian philosopher and writer who died on 6 October.

Mbiti, a son of Kenya and an authority in religion and philosophy, had traversed the world for decades as a theologian, scholar and a teacher. His death in Switzerland after a short illness has reverberated in Kenya, where he was born 87 years ago.

“I have known John as an intellectual giant. Truly a very gentle, warm and insightful creative and loving person,” Prof. Kivutha Kibwana, a law scholar, now serving a governor in Makueni County in eastern Kenya, said in a tribute.

“Although John scaled the academic heights in the field of theology, he was a pastor first, a servant of God, a shepherd of the flock.”

Mbiti was born in Mulango in Kitui County eastern Kenya in 1931. He was one of the six children of Samuel Mutuvi Ngaangi and Valesi Mbandi Kiimba. His family’s strong Christian background facilitated his acquisition of education through the African Inland Church, in Alliance High School near Nairobi and University College of Makerere, then an external college of the University of London where he graduated in 1953.

In 1956 and 1957, he had received a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Theology from Barrington College, Rhode Island. In 1963, he earned a PhD in Theology at Cambridge University, after which he was ordained a priest of the Church of England.

Back in Makerere University in 1964, he commenced teaching African Traditional Religion. It is while here that Mbiti wrote his first book, the African Religions and Philosophy. The text challenged the widely held views then that African traditional religions were demonic and anti-Christian.

“I had never heard about African Traditional Religion, let alone hearing any lectures about it. So, I went about doing research to collect some material on which to base my lectures,” Mbiti said in March 2012.

“The students began to ask me for my written lectures or notes, as there were no books on the subject (apart from one or two small works by English missionaries). Eventually, I put together my lecture notes into African Religions and Philosophy, which after many rejections by publishers came out in 1969.”

Encouraged by the publication of the first book, he carried out further research and wrote the Concepts of God, which was published in 1970. Revising his PhD thesis, Mbiti published New Testament eschatology in African Background in 1971. The book explores psycho-spiritual grounds where Africans and Christians might meet. He then followed with, Introduction to African Religion and The Prayers of African Religion in 1975.

He was a director of the WCC’s Ecumenical Institute from 1974-1980.

A member of the Akamba, a community that occupies an area in eastern and south- central Kenya, he was also the first person to translate the Bible into Kiikamba, his people’s dialect.

At the time of his death, Mbiti was emeritus professor of the University of Bern and retired parish minister in Burgdorf, Switzerland.

“We thank God for his immense contribution to scholarship in African religion and philosophy and in the development of Kiikamba language and literature,” Kyeni Mbiti, one of his children in a statement.

1n 2016, he was honoured with the Archbishop’s Award for Peace and Justice from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa

President Uhuru Kenyatta mourned the scholar as a role model and an ambassador of the Kenyan brand abroad.

WCC commemorates life of former Bossey director John Samuel Mbiti