This piece is an attempt to articulate an African (Igbo) conception of space and time. Igbo terms and phrases are explained in light of their traditional, non-European cultural and linguistic background. Care is taken to present a distinctively African account, not a neo-colonial one. The African conceptions of space and time account for some African beliefs sand practices regarding causality, including such widely misunderstood phenomena as divination, the “medicine man, “ and “magic.”
Due to the absence of records in writing in traditional Africa (until recent times), individual African thinkers’ efforts to reflect on the phenomena of time and space were not effectively preserved. Consequently, one observes that the products of such philosophical reflections on time and space have become, in the process of oral transmission over the ages, part of the traditional African culture. The individual authors remain unknown: yet, it goes without saying that these views must have been the fruits of deep and sustained philosophical reflections by some gifted individual African thinkers in the past though now unknown to us. This scenario has reduced traditional African articulations of time and space to “community thoughts.”
Pioneer efforts to articulate such conceptions in African thought have resulted in generalizations with little thought of empirical warrant. The paradigms of this tendency are in the pioneer works of Placide Tempels and John. Mbiti.1 In these works, there is the tendency to postulate unanimity in philosophical beliefs among various African peoples. Tempels, for example, generalized about African traditional thoughts when he held a certain view about the Bantu. The Bantu, according to him, believe that: “Force is the nature of being, force is being and being is force.”2 He thereupon credited it to the Africans in general. Similarly, Mbiti in his work, African Religions and Philosophy, fell into same trap when he discussed what he called “The African concept of Time”. He reports that:
For them, time is simply the composition of events which have occurred, those which are taking place now, and those which are immediately to occur. What has not taken place or what has no likelihood of immediate occurrences falls in the category of ‘No time.’3
He further, also in error, had this to say about the African: Time for the African is a two-dimensional phenomenon with along past, a present, and virtually no future.” This tendency on the parts of Tempels, Mbiti, and other philosophers has been a subject of criticism by both African and non-African philosophers alike.5 Tsenay, for example, observes that some African peoples have a conception of an infinite future. The Akans of Ghana, he informs us, have a word, afeboo, which offers a means of referring directly to the infinite future.6 Also, about the Bantu, Alexis Kagame reiterates that: “it is evident that for them ‘future time is infinite.”7
These criticisms are necessitated by the tendency on the part of pioneer writers on African philosophy to hastily attribute philosophical doctrines (which on scrutiny are unique to a specific group in Africa) to the entire continent. However, this tendency appears now to be on the wane. Hence, the present author prefers to have a focal point from which to articulate an African conception of time and space. This informs the title of this work; “Time and Space in African Thought. The theories may not necessarily apply to all African societies; the ideas expressed herein may not be shared by the Igbo who through Western education and interaction are no longer of a piece with their traditional Igbo culture. However, it is important to note that there are striking similarities in the cultures and thoughts of the various peoples of Africa. Their differences are only apparent. The commonality can only be abstracted by philosophers for an educated generalization. The view point informs the generalization implicit in the title and content of this work.
The Igbo are an ethnic group located in the south-eastern part of Nigeria in West Africa. Igbo land extends to parts of Midwestern and Niger delta areas of Nigeria. It covers the present Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, the eastern part of Delta State, and the northern part of Rivers State.
Linguistically, the Igbo belongs to the Kwa group of West Africa. With an estimated population of about 14million, the Igbo form the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria. They live mainly in rural agricultural villages. However, Western education has now made it possible to find in their midst lawyers, teachers, traders, and other professionals. Though receptive to foreign cultures, they find it difficult to jettison their own tradition.
Recently in my village, a typical traditional Igbo setting, an alarm was raised at the village square, ububu. Soon, the square was a sea of heads all eager to know what was amiss. The village spokesman called the gathering to order and further directed the attention of the crowd to two gentlemen who stood conspicuously at the center of the square. He the spokesman, informed all present that they had been called out to listen to an accusation leveled against one of their kinsmen, Mr. A. who lives with them here in the village. (Mr. A stepped out for recognition.) The spokesman went on to narrate that Mr. Y, who lives in Lagos, had come home to complain to the elders of the village that he (Mr. Y) has been afflicted by the magic powers of Mr. A. To cut the long story short, Mr. Y has been sickly. He has spent a lot on himself without improvement. He begins to worry and therefore goes to a traditional medicine man who, after prescribing some medicine, informed him that Mr. A was the cause of his illness. Another medicine man was consulted and he confirmed that Mr. Y’s problem was the handwork of an evil force directed on him by Mr. A.
It is important to note that after Mr. Y, the plaintiff, had corroborated the spokesman’s story, there was no doubt in the minds of all who gathered in the square with regard to the possibility of someone at home influencing someone else living in faraway Lagos, rather, what was at stake was whether Mr. A. did so or not. That is, all believed the possibility of such an influence, the distance between the village and Lagos, notwithstanding.
For a people to believe that an object specifically treated and placed in a certain strategic position is the main causal factor in the behavior of a people coming within a certain range, within the periphery of the object, then that belief cannot be seen as based upon some theory of reality to which the people subscribe. The belief that one can blow a dusty substance into the air, utter some words, and thereby cause a certain disease view of time and space, and the relation of these entities.
Space belongs to the category of force that localizes spatially every event and every motion. It is the content that defines space in traditional Igbo thought. Investigations8 reveal that the Igbo, in an attempt to give account of their cosmology, end up by pointing to the sky, the earth, and the world underneath. The sky, to the Igbo, is the abode of God, Chi ukwu, and spirits; the departed live in the world underneath, ala muo, while, living humans dwell on earth. The earth, the human world, is also the abode of the lesser spirits. That is to say, the Igbo conceive three dimensions of existence peopled, as it were, with different categories of forces or beings, some visible, some invisible. As such, in Igbo thought the intervals between spatial existents could be lengthened or shortened at will by anyone manipulating the beings. This could be done either by keeping the objects wider apart or by bringing them closer together. The objects in space are hierarchically graded from the smallest (the invisibles) to the largest (the visible) in such a way that all objects in space can be telescoped into one whole, just as a series of similarly built boxes can be arranged in ascending or descending order.
The above tenets with regard to space in Igbo thought have some implications in the Igbo causal theories. The universe is conceived as an orderly one “in which all significant events are caused and are potentially explicable.”9 If this is true, then any particular occurrence must have a causal explanation. Second, though human beings are in the center of the universe, there are other forces that operate on them, as well as those which they operate on to effect changes in their world. Such operations are based on the principle that “the higher a force is, the more causally efficacious it is.”
Thus, Mr. A. through the higher force of a medicine-man, could influence the being of Mr. Y, who lives in Lagos, some hundred kilometers away. The medicine man, who has the training and power, metaphysically manipulates the existence between Mr. A and Mr. Y, thereby reducing the distance between the two. The traditional Igbo believes that the medicine man “constructs” a link between objects in space. This he does through the power of his mind. The mind, substantiated as charms or amulets acting as the links between objects in space, enabled Mr. A to influence Mr. Y. The influence is imaginable when one remembers that, according to Igbo metaphysics, the intervals between objects in space can either be lengthened or shortened, and links through minds can be “constructed” between visible and invisible objects in space.
Given this idea of space, therefore, both the accusation and the act become explicable and reasonable. That minds are themselves interconnected is eloquently vindicated in the now popular Western science of telepathy and clairvoyance. So long as there is mind, there must be a connection between it and all other objects in space. The connection is necessary for the existent forces to interact one with another, according to the traditional Igbo theory of forces.
Like space, time is reckoned by the Igbo in non-abstract terms. It is never twelve o’clock, rather, it is when the sun is directly overhead. The traditional Igbo does not talk of half past three in the afternoon, rather, he talks of when civil servants dismiss from work. One is said to have been born at the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war rather than on January, 15, 1970. That is to say, like space, time is peopled with events related to the movements of the sun and the moon, or in relation to important events in the lives of individuals or groups of individuals.
In human interactions, two ways are formed of indicating or reckoning time. The Igbo differentiate between egocentric time scale and structural time (which is based on the totality of inter-personal relations within the entire Igbo social structure). That is, the Igbo have human and non-human measures of time.10
An individual is the unit of reckoning time under the egocentric time measure. The Igbo periodize the age of an individual, and the periodization is meant to be of universal application within an Igbo traditional community. For example, a new born baby is circumcised after say, three Igbo weeks (that is eight days). The Yoruba go further to portray the egocentric reckoning of time by giving a name to a newly born male baby on the ninth day, and on the seventh day for a female baby. This, they contend, is because the male has nine ribs, while the female possesses seven. The child’s age is also reckoned in different ways roughly approximating to particular stages of development. For example, the Igbo talk of nwa apa n’aka, a child still carried on the lap of its mother. The stages of crawling, walking, running errands, and so on, are also used to measure time among the traditional Igbo.
There is yet another use of an individual for the purpose of measuring time. Since individuals live not in isolation but in relation with one another, a communo-centric measurement of time develops among the Igbo. Time is reckoned by a non-causal association of two events, whether or not they are isochronous. Thus, if a man is asked when he got married, he replies by associating that event (his marriage) with more popular events in the community, like the death of Chief A or B, or the year of the last locust invasion, or immediately after the Nigeria-Biafra war. Little wonder, therefore, that most pre-literate Igbo do not know how old they are, although they could “know” that they are older that someone else. Such claims are made because great respect is paid to age and seniority among the traditional Igbo, and indeed all Africans. Time devoid of events, therefore, makes no sense among the Igbo. This sharpens the traditional Igbo’s memory of the before-ness, after- ness, simultaneity of events. This method of measuring time has inherent difficulty: namely, since communication was poor in traditional Igbo societies in time was localized and relative to structural space. However, for a particular locally, ambiguity in timing is solved by saying that an event E occurred in time. T, where T is in some definite moment fixed by some dating from a well-known and presumably unique event. Thus seen, in contradistinction to the Western quasi-linear view of time, the traditional African envisages relationship that is not primarily serial but exemplify the tendency of events, perhaps, remote if measured by standards of systematic historiography, to coalesce on the basis of some similarity or felt congruity or recurrent ethnic ritual.
The method of measuring time among the Igbo clearly varies with the economy, the ecology, the ritual system, and the political organization, as well as with the traditional Igbo technology. The peasant economic system of a traditional Igbo society “has little need for elaborate scheduling, nor does it always possess the mechanical devices that permit accurate measurement.”11 Thus, the repetitive patterns of the world of nature in addition to those of human life, provide the basic measurement of time. “The idea of recurrence is fundamental in Igbo thought,” according to Isichei.12
Short units of time are variously measured. For example, the traditional Igbo talk of the twinkling of the eye as the shortest unit of time. On some occasions, short time is measured by the time it takes for water to boil; on other occasions it is measured by how long it takes the human sputum to dry up. If an elder, for instance, wants a child to run an errand for him in the shortest possible time, he spits on the floor and then orders the child to go and come back before the sputum dries up. However, in the three instances given, there are no elements of precision. The boiling of water will depend, among other factors, on the amount of heat used; the drying up of the sputum would depend on the weather as well as the period of the day. Similarly, some eyes twinkle faster than others. These modes are, therefore, subjective.
The crowing of the cock signals, for the Igbo, the beginning of a new day. It is an abomination for the cock to crow at a “wrong time” (say, six, seven, or eight o’clock in the evening). The erring cock is caught and slaughtered by people around. Other animals are also used to measure time: The music of the dove is used for knowing the early hours of the morning, just as the end of the day is reckoned by observing the chickens roosting. The appearance of cattle egrets marks the beginning of dry season in the Southern parts of West Africa; whereas, the disappearance of kites indicates the beginning of the rainy season.
Like other human societies, in Igbo land the angles of the sun and the lengths of shadows cast are measures of time. When one stands on one’s shadow, it is midday. The length of the shadow (either in the morning or afternoon) indicates how early morning or late afternoon the time is. Unfortunately, the fact that the setting of the sun varies from season to season complicates the Igbo method of measuring time from the position and brightness of the sun. This is because, at certain periods of the year, the sun still appears bright in the sky; yet, it does not take a long time before darkness falls. People can easily be deceived by the sun at such periods of the year. Time based on the sun is, therefore, bound to be mistaken and erroneous.
The common knowledge is that the Igbo calendar consists of a week or izu, of four days; a lunar month, or Onwa, of twenty-eight days comprising seven native weeks, or izu asaa; a year, or afo (eye), made up of ninety-one weeks, or izu, or thirteen lunar months. The day is called ubochi14.
The priests of each community are the time keepers, and the process of time-keeping is known as igu afo, or igu aro. The lunar months dictate major feasts and celebrations in Igboland, as is the case in other traditional African societies. For economic convenience, there is a practice among the Igbo to reckon izunta and izu ukwu, that is, small and big native weeks of four and eight days respectively. Official market days with heavy sessions rotate in an eight-day cycle (two native weeks) among villages in a town in order to avoid monopoly by one village or town. The determination of the market-day session is based on the principle of propinquity, with the result that an Afo or Orie day can have small and big sessions in different places on the same day (time) without provoking any rift or contradiction. It is important also to observe that, apart from the seeming confusion by the terms “small and Big weeks,” the Igbo language has only the names of four days: Eke, Orie, Afo, and Nkwo. It appears, therefore, that the question of an Igbo calendar is a matter of opinion.
But the question of calendar is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact, in so far as what the calendar represents or stands for are natural movements. For example, the day is determined by the rotation of the earth on its axis; the month is determined by the period the moon takes to revolve around the earth; while, the year follows the revolution of the earth around the sun. The Igbo, no doubt, haven’t the scientific knowledge and technology to observe with precision, the movement of the earth or that of that of that of the moon. Discussions with time keepers show that, howbeit, all time reckoning is based on natural phenomena.
But it is now obvious that it is impossible for a calendar based on a four –day week to have 12 months in 365 days. Rather, 1 month=4 (days) x 7 (weeks) =28 days1 year =12 (days) x 13 (months) = 364 days +1 day. This calculation, presented by Ukaegbu, betrays Knowledge of the Gregorian (Western Idea of) calendar. The origin of the Igbo calendar is a matter of conjecture and the Igbo have a lot of legends and theories on the origin of their calendar. What is important for my enterprise is that the Igbo have idea of calendar.
The Igbo do distinguish between time and what is in time. For them, time is not an inscrutable property of events. That is, it is erroneous to think. “Time for the African is a two dimensional phenomenon with a long past, a present and virtually no future.” Admittedly, for a pre-literature society lacking a sophisticated numeracy like the traditional Igbo, the future is much too abstract and removed to be stated exactly. But to the Igbo, the practical and cognitive relations towards the future are different from those towards the past. Whereas the past has been experienced, the future can be known only indirectly by probable inference. Hence, in Igbo thought, it is better to talk of “experiential time.” Experiential time is centered on now. Always, when the Igbo pays attention to his time experience, he thinks of past and future as extension of the now: that is, the past as the sphere of reference of all memories, the future as the sphere of reference of all expectancies. But, unlike the past, the future could be said to have a limited certainty. Hence, the Igbo say, “Onye ma echi?” (Who knows tomorrow?).
Paradoxically, for the Igbo, the future is more certain than expressed in the above position. What to them are not certain in the future are the events. This idea is succinctly expressed by an Igbo saying, “Echi di ime.” (Tomorrow is pregnant.) The Igbo are certain of the future but uncertain of the events in the future. They express certainty of the future when they remark, “Chi Afo abola Nkwo; Eke adi kwaghi Orie anya.” (After Afo you have Nkwo; then Eke is no longer far from Orie.) In other words, for the Igbo, each person lives in what is present. But the experiential present is not a mathematical instant such as can be postulated in the Western scientific view of time. Rather, time in Igbo thought is a moving and eventual present always in the process of being born out of what has just been and is in the process of giving way to what is just about to be.
By implication, therefore, the traditional Igbo do not see themselves as completely ignorant of the future. What is more, they do not even believe that the details of the future are completely barred from them, because through training, the secrets of the future are known to the diviner or medicine man. This metaphysical disposition informs the plausibility of the information from the medicine man, that Mr. A influenced the being of Mr. Y from far away Lagos in our introductory story. The testimony of the medicine man collaborated by another medicine man was enough proof of the allegation leveled against Mr. A. The Igbo do not believe that probable inferences can only be made from the past to the present. On the contrary, they hold that the future is encapsulated in the present in such a way that the future is only an outgrowth of the present. Hence, they say, “Taa bu gboo.” (Today, or rather the present, is the past.)
It is important to note that the Igbo balance their view of the certainty of the future with that of its uncertainty, thereby casting doubt, so to say, on their certainty of the future. They maintain, “Onye no taamaraechi?” (Who can know tomorrow from today?) because they are well aware that the future does not necessarily follow the pattern of the present. The practical implication of this is that they are prepared, mentally, for the uncertainty of the future in such a way as to mitigate its uncertainty. As such, there is only an apparent inconsistency between the Igbo belief on the certainty of the future.
By indicating an awareness of the past, the present, and the future, the Igbo accept time as a locus of history. This knowledge, first, portrays time as being in antiquity; second, it shows that the Igbo have the notion of precedence. Hence, they say, “Anyiebughiankuewuri.” (We have never been cooking with firewood.) That is to say, before the use of firewood, they had been cooking, but with a different fuel. Time as a locus of history can be described as heteromorphic rather than isomorphic. That is, each moment has its own total character which is not identical with the total character of any other moment being drawn from the entire sum of memories and expectancies, whether conscious or subconscious, that constitute the living past and future of just that moment and no other. In addition to their notion of time being a locus of history, the Igbo also appreciate the irreversibility and interruptibility of the flow of time. Time cannot be arrested, they contend; hence, things have to be done in their proper place and time.
The above notions pose a theoretical problem, namely, the precedence between time and event. Since it is events that must keep pace with time and not vice versa, it can be inferred that, for the Igbo, time antedates motion even though time was unintelligible before motion. This position is complicated by the belief that there are, in fact, events over which time has no bearing at all because they can occur against all temporal laws.
The foregoing show that time is not only implicit in traditional Igbo thought and speech; it is also a clear category of it. The Igbo fully appreciate that a proper understanding of time is a prerequisite of its judicious use. Time for the Igbo is relational. Since time like space is relational in Igbo thought, one must not start one’s analysis with perceptual objects (continuants). Rather one has to start with phenomenal objects, that is, with momentary entities like mental acts such as thinking, behaving, willing, and so on. Events, therefore, have to be distinguished in terms of particulars. By this process, time will consist of moments, t1, t2, t3,…. which are ordered by the temporal relation of being-later-than or being-earlier-than.
The traditional Igbo relational conception of time establishes the needed link between every constituent of space (or place). Every particular in space (Mr. Y or Mr. A) at each point in time, is connected to every other particular in space. One would ask, what constitutes the link? According to traditional Igbo metaphysics or theory of forces, mind is the link between particulars in space and time. So long as there is mind, contends the Igbo, there must be a connection between it and all other entities in its vicinity. Having argued that the space between objects or entities can be increased or reduced the mind, acting as a link between them, makes for the needed interaction of entities one with another.
This theory of space and time, and interaction of forces makes it reasonable for a traditional Igbo audience to think and believe without any doubt and difficulty that a person can influence the being of another person through charms or amulets irrespective of the distance apart. Objects in space, human and non-human, reach one another, no matter their locations. “It is believed that one with ‘suitable medicated eyes’ can act at a distance to affect the fortunes of others who are less knowledgeable.”17 One either has to pull a string or operate a switch to put on an electric light! Similarly, the minds, executes in terms of linking objects in space and time with consummate ease. “The universe is conceived as an orderly one ‘in which all significant events are caused and are potentially explicable.”18 If this is true, then any particular occurrence must have a causal explanation. In addition, though human beings are in the centre of the universe, there are other forces that operate on them as well as those that they operate on to effect changes in their world. Mr. A through the superior mind-force of a medicine man was able to link and influence the being of Mr. Y. Like space, instants of time can be telescoped by the mind either backwards or forwards so that the past or future instants can, by the same operation, be brought to the present instant; and thereby, a diviner can decipher what happened either in the past or will happen in the future. Fortune telling and divination, therefore, become ordinary perception to the suitably strained eyes of the traditional African medicine man.
Time and space in African (Igbo) thought have both perceptual and conceptual aspects. By ‘perceptual” we mean not outward perceptions, but rather the internal ones, namely, the feelings of the body’s pulsating beat. Hence, it is more understandable to talk of experiential time. Though the Igbo conception of time and space is centred on subjectivity, it acquires a sort of objectivity, rough but effectual, so far as it is shared by more persons than one. When two effectual, so far as it is shared by more persons than one. When two persons swing their axes in concerted rhythm while chopping wood or sing and dance in rhythmic harmony, they are objectifying their directly enjoyed time experience in a manner suited to their purpose. But as human societies become more cosmopolitan, both their sizes and their increasing differentiation of functions tend to weaken the collective sense of time. This is the case with the contemporary Igbo societies. The contemporary Igbo societies are made up of people of varied professions. While the farmer can afford to reckon time through, say, the position of the sun and the length of the shadows, the teacher of the civil servant needs to be precise. He has to be at his office or school at 8.00A.M. There was a time when land owners measured the length of land that they sold by throwing a stone. Where the stone landed parked the end of the plot! Now space needs to be precise and definite. Sophisticated means of measuring time and space are now in vogue; yet, the traditional conceptions have not been jettisoned, even though practical convenience requires that time and space should be indirectly and precisely measured.
Admittedly, to say, for example, “I will meet you when the sun is down,” or to ask someone, “Will you return during the New Yam festival?” dies not make for the most efficient social arrangements, especially on a large scale. This has resulted in conflicts and miscommunications. Land boundaries have been sources of feud among families and even villages. Meetings or social gatherings are never started as scheduled because the members conceive time differently. For some, the meeting holds by, say 3.00P. M.; while for others, it holds in the afternoon. The tendency to attend meetings late is now rationalized under the syndrome of “African time.”
These conflicts are gradually being resolved through the acquisition of Western education. It is now common place to see traders measure cloth with the rule. Watches are now part of dressing in appreciation that time can be accurately measured only when what we call time units are symbolized as actually measurable space units. Yet a more sophisticated traditional Igbo still arranges meetings by such directives as, “When the sun is at the zenith” and says, “When the water in the pot has sunk to the third line” for directing when to add condiments in a meal under preparation. The results are more accurate, a small step has been taken towards a “scientific” worldview. The African (Igbo) idea of time has thus been tidied up by putting it into spatial dress.