Sasa and Zamani

  Jerome Shea       April 24, 2009      Weekend Wonk

In his very commendable Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen gives new life to the Swahili terms “Sasa” (“Sasha,” for Loewen) and “Zamani.” We will get back to Loewen presently, but first let me try my best to explain the terms. I warn you that my best may not be good enough, because Sasa and Zamani represent highly sophisticated African notions of time, religion, and philosophy.

The best source for these terms, and Loewen gives due credit, is John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy, first published in 1970. As evidenced by sophisticated verb tenses, African cultures have a very acute awareness of the present and the past (though less so of the future). Different tense forms suggest the remote future (this “remote” is very misleading for Westerners, however: it suggests at most a half-year into the future); the near future; the indefinite future; the present; the immediate past; and the recent past. Sasa comprises this whole continuum. Zamani overlaps Sasa to an extent, starting with the immediate past and stretching to cover the remote past (which is beyond the reach of Sasa—a crucial point). Remember, too, that the “present” is a fluid fiction, always nibbling at the future and always getting gobbled up itself by the past.

Here is Mbiti himself on Sasa and Zamani:

Zamani is not limited to what in English is called the past. It also has its own “past, “present,” and “future,” but on a wider scale. We might call it the Macro-Time (Big Time). Zamani overlaps with Sasa [the Micro-Time] and the two are not separable. Sasa feeds or disappears into Zamani. But before events become incorporated into the Zamani, they have to become realized or actualized within the Sasa dimension. When this has taken place, then the events “move” backward from the Sasa into the Zamani. So Zamani becomes the period beyond which nothing can go. Zamani is the graveyard of time, the period of termination, the dimension in which everything finds its halting point. It is the final store-house for all phenomena and events, the ocean of time in which everything becomes absorbed into a reality which is neither after nor before.

Sasa is forever—I hope the word is well chosen—disappearing into Zamani. I think it would not be too much to say that the present—could we ever hold it fast—and Sasa are the two components of real time, living time. Zamani, in Mbiti’s wonderful phrase, is “the graveyard of time…the dimension in which everything finds its halting place.” In a sense, it is not time at all, but the place where time stops, disappears, or is suspended forever.

Back to Loewen, if only because he puts the issue in somewhat oversimplified terms that I think are easier for Westerners to grasp. He talks about the living, the living dead—no, not zombies—and the (truly) dead. In other words, the living, the Sasa, and the Zamani. “Living” means just what it says. The Sasa are those who have died but who still exist “in living memory.” People can still remember their living presence fondly, can recall anecdotes about them, and so forth. In a very powerful sense, they really are still among the living. Finally, when the last of those friends and family who knew them have themselves joined the Sasa, they then will join the Zamani. There may be pictures of these Zamani, they may be noted in books, and so forth—Loewen is not saying that there is no record of them at all—but they are Zamani nonetheless. Abraham Lincoln is Zamani. Caesar is Zamani. Christ (I hope I don’t get in trouble here) is Zamani. The vast majority of us, of course, were not famous and never will be: my great-grandfather, Matthew Shea, is Zamani, as are my Shea and Driscoll ancestors stretching into the long Celtic past.

I like this. It explains some inchoate feelings that we all have. My father, who died over 40 years ago, is still Sasa and will be Sasa for at least as long as my brother and I are alive. I remember Pop, warts and all. Especially as my grandchildren get older, I want to tell them all the stories that I can remember about their great-grandfather Shea and their great-grandmother Shea, who died in 1958. (These are people that even their mother and their Uncle Dan never knew.) Note that for my grandchildren those great-grandparents have always been Zamani. Yes, the grandkids will have a store of stories about them, but those stories will be part of THEIR grandfather Shea—Poppy Shea—when he is Sasa. Second-hand memories, as it were. And so it goes and will go. Living…Sasa…Zamani.

More next week.

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