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Biography (1906-1977)

The Centre Aequatoria gratefully acknowledges the kind initiative of Mrs Bénédicte K. Kusendila of the Catholic University of Brussels, who volunteered to translate the original French version of this text into English.


The name of Placide Tempels conjures up, in some way, a whole range of questions which are closely related to the existence of an African philosohpy.

To many African intellectuals, his name epitomises Bantu Philosophy. [1] Indeed, it is very hard to come across writings on Afican philosophy which do not bear reference to Tempels' 1945 "Philosophie bantoue".

"The honour of having been the first author who brought the matter of 'Bantu' philosophy to the surface" [2] is bestowed upon him. However, he has also been reproached for the "bold" [3] title of this book, which "rests on an imbalance between the level of experience and the level of reflection, if you like, between the popular meaning and the informed meaning of the word, 'philosophy'" [4]. It is the sort of confusion that he may have wanted: "the authors in question (including Tempels, despite his apparent innocence) were well aware that the "African philosophy", the way they heard it, belonged to an entirely different genre from European "philosophy", in its habitual and strict sense of the word." [5]

To this day, talking about Father Tempels means, for a great a number of people in Congo, referring to the Jamaa. His name is linked here to an attempted adaptation of various forms of expression of Christianity to the African spirit. Once more, those who comment can be divided into fervent followers, on the one hand, and disparaging on-lookers, on the other [6].

It is easy to observe how a great number of authors calling upon Tempels simply ignore the existence of his other writings and of the Jamaa. Basing themselves on the French translation of this book, they often reduce the contents to the "vital force" or to the identification of "être" (being) as "force" [7].

In a time when an entire continent is looking for its real dimensions and when many young Africans wish to recognise themselves in a true African philosophy, it may be apt to present the body of work of one of the authors who are at the origin of the question of African philosophy that has arisen in recent years [8].


Father Tempels was born in the Belgian province of Antwerp on 18 February 1906 from parents who originated from the Belgian province of Limburg. Shortly after birth, he was christened Frans.
After having obtained his secondary school certificate, he joined the Order of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Tielt (OFM, Belgium) on 17 September 1924). As a novice, he adopted the name of Placide.

On 15 August 1930, he is ordained a priest and he now prepares himself for a life as a missionary in former Belgian Congo (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo). On 3 November 1933 he sets out for Dilolo, where he arrives two weeks later on 22 November.
No sooner has he arrived in the region of the Moïro lake than he starts to listen in on the people who live there. He records children's rhymes, popular sayings and local songs on a daily basis. He does this especially in Luabo, Lukonzolwa and Lumbu - which are all situated in the diocese of Kamina [9]

In an autobiographic statement, Tempels himself described his first years as a missionary thus :

"I came to Africa in 1933 as a European citizen, as a white person in colonised Africa… and, what is more important, I believed I was the messenger with a message from Above.
So I adopted the mind-set of the white people, of the master, the Boula Matari. The message God had trusted me with inspired me towards a priestly approach, i.e. that of the spiritual master, the severe doctor, the religious civil servant, the governor or the pastor, with his flock that only had to listen and obey in silence" [10].

After ten years of missionary work in the back of beyond, after a fair amount of research, papers and moments of desperation, he has found his way of life taking a direct interest in man himself:

"So, I would look at this person and ask him : 'What is the matter with yourself? What is wrong with him? Wat sort of person are you ? What are you thinking? What do you want the most? What about your magic medicine? What does it mean? How does it work?' etc." [11].

Tempels had an aim ; he wanted to feel "Bantu" [sic] at least once in life. He wanted to think, feel, live like them, have a Bantu soul. Once he had achieved to see and feel life like them, he'd take on his European personality again but he would then speak a truly adapted and comprehensible language.

However, Tempels tells us how, in this effort to confide his personality to the other, the Bantu man achieved "to express himself clearly, also discovering himself for the first time through reflection. [He found] the depths of his personality, the mystery of his being and of his soul" [12].
Tempels himself was overwhelmed by the person who confided his inner being to him. A dialogue arises between him and the African man who fills him in on the matters he wishes for the most:

'1) Life, the intensity of life, living life to the fullest, the strength of life, the totality of life, the intensity trough being;
 2) fertility, fatherhood and motherhood, great, intense and complete fertility, a fertility which is not solely physical;
 3) the vital union with other beings; isolation kills us' [13] .

Tempels reported that together, they had discovered an entire universe of deeply human thoughts and aspirations in the muntu. This was how Tempels came to live a "vital experience"; as they went along and talked about the triple aspiration together, he began to discover this primal being living inside himself, underneath his Western behavioural attitudes. He too felt this triple aspiration to living life to the fullest, to great fertility and to the union and togetherness with other beings. And he got to add that it was the African man who had helped him to discover himself:

"What joy, new to the both of us to discover we resembled each other and, what is more, to see we began to 'meet' each other soul to soul.
And there I had been thinking that after having discovered the Bantu personality, I could have gone back to being the pastor, the governor, the doctor. Even though I mastered a technique of appropriate language use to 'teach' Christianity, I suddenly realised that in this man to man meeting and soul to soul encounter from one being to another, we had evolved from mutual acquaintance to getting on well, and finally, to love… and [I saw] that precisely Christianity had just been born and had already begun" [14].

This encounter, this union of love, Tempels says, caused excess thirst to be born inside themselves as well as a shared momentum to look for the real, full and complete answer to their more profound being, with its aspirations to living fully, to fertility and to togetherness with their beings. Tempels goes on to say:

"There once lived a man who said : 'I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it more abundantly'. He did not say: 'This is the way to life', but he did say: 'I am the life'. There once was a man who said: 'I appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain'. And this same man added: 'I have been sent that you all may be ONE; that you may be ONE just as the Father and I are ONE'... A triple answer which stunningly fits the triple fundamental aspiration of the Bantu personality" [15].

It is during this process of Tempels' spiritual evolution that the edition of his Bantu Philosophy should be situated, in Kabondo Dianda, north of Kamina, eleven years after his arrival in the country. He writes several articles in the "Essor du Congo", Elisabethville's - (now Lubumbashi)- newspaper around the same time. In these articles, he expresses his views on particular aspects of Bantu culture and he also criticises Belgian administration. He returns to Europe at the beginning of 1946 and resides in Belgium until the end of 1949.

1950 Kabondo Dianda is where we meet up again with Father Tempels. He enjoys a short stay at Kajeje, in the workers' camp of the "Le Marinel" dam (now Makala Lukula) and he spends an interim period in Musonoi [16]. In 1953, he is appointed Parish Priest at the Union Minière mining company parish in Ruwe (now Mutoshi), near Kolwezi. He also teaches Religion, first at a vocational school, then at a teacher training college for instructors [17]. At the beginning of January in 1957, he is transferred and is appointed parish priest in Musonoi, another Union Minière town. From this place, he writes to the editors of the book 'Aspects of black culture':

"I have been in a workman's town of about 15,000 people since the beginning of January. Starting out all by yourself in a place like this, trying to get in touch, integrating yourself in this crowd is enough to keep you busy, to be taken by and to have you live a fierce tension. If you have a moment to yourself, there is no peace of mind nor can the mind be put to rest in order to begin writing an article - even if this article should not be anything more than the sheer expression of the things you intensely live through your contacts with the black crowd. You will certainly appreciate the impossibility in which I find myself to part with the experiences I live and [at the same time] to transfigure myself into a contemplating subject or into a subject that describes this object, which would be his life with the black people or that which you call his dialogue with the black people.

I do understand what you are asking. It is about, I believe, the dialogue of real-life Bantu ontology with Western culture. That would then be my field. Right, but not quite right.
It would indeed be possible to establish this dialogue, and I could write an essay on it… If I had not been immersed in this crowd, which engulfs me and in which I am trying to fit in ad lib. So you see that, for me, it is not about starting up a dialogue between a Bantu point of view and Western culture. Neither is it even about starting up a dialogue between a European and the Bantu people. To me, it is about an entirely different entreprise. I have to immerse myself entirely in the mentality, psychology, even in the life of the Bantu man. I have to rid myself of everything Western so that I myself can become Bantu with the Bantu people. It is about accomplishing this communion with them, this union of life which they all long for. So there is more to it than [merely] a dialogue between Europeans and Bantu people. There is communion, union of life between them and me, only as far as their Bantu life is concerned. And in this communion, we look together at our entire life, together we re-examine our entire life, looking into its tendencies and fundamental aspirations…" [19].

From 1953 onwards, Tempels had found his own way of initiating Christianity to the Africans and of teaching Christian doctrine to them. A small group of followers gathered around him; others soon joined, drawn in by his personality.
One day, they asked him what they should call themselves. Together they were looking for ways to define themselves. To the question of the Father: "What are we then?", they spontaneously answered they were: "Jamaa, a family." And this is what they called themselves [20].

Much later, Tempels wrote a series of pastoral articles which were collected in a volume entitled "Notre rencontre", Our encounter; 'encounter' and 'Jamaa' will become key notions in the whole effort at African Christian renewal.

From 5 to 12 April 1961, Father Tempels helped out on the "Colloquium on Religions" in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). He recounts the end of the Colloquium when, after the experts on African Animism and the representatives of Islam, of Protestantism and of Catholicism had said what they'd had to say and after the debates had come to a close, he was asked to say a few words about his African experience:

"We were asked to discuss African culture. Allow me to constrain myself to 'Bantu' culture -or, rather, to the 'Bantu personality'. By this, we mean the collection of thoughts and aspirations of the Bantu man, his mind-set, his way of life. However, we are not really interested in the impersonal culture; we are interested in the real person. In this living person, we meet him who entrusts his thoughts and aspirations to us. We also meet the One who planted the seed of thought and aspiration in the soul of this man… Those who feel the call of the apostle or of the messenger of the divine first and foremost have to discover the personality of the people they address. They have to respect the seed of truth and love concealed inside these people. They only have to be the servant who looks after, waters and, if needs must be, trims the plant which has sprouted from this seed" [21].

Due to his health which caused him to suffer a lot, Father Tempels left Africa for good on 2 April 1962. He testified:

"Personally, I have been lucky to have accomplished myself and to have blossomed out to the heart of my self thanks to the Bantu man, and now not to live anymore but answerable to him" [22].

Back in Belgium, Father Tempels will remain interested in Bantu culture through seminars and conferences. An African who met him in Leuven on 9 November 1963 -when Tempels chaired a seminar on "Dialogue and Encounter"- paints the following picture of him:

"With his grey hairs, lavish beard, large forehead and slightly receding hairline, Father Tempels could be categorised as an accomplished sixty-year-old. His somewhat deep-set eyes, with a look of such Franciscan straightforwardness, hide behind glasses astride of a slightly curved and convex nose on nostrils that almost want to breathe the universe. Anyone who approaches the father easily notices that straightforwardness constitutes his main feature and that, furthermore, honesty, sincerity, love for man and for dialogue seem to make up his principal concern. His choice of words betrays and reveals the profound impact his conversion in the mission land has left on him. He is in love with this [part of] Africa of which he believes he has felt real life pulsating through the Bantu heart. Nonetheless, when you have got wind of the experience which yielded him his writings, you recognise a slightly hidden trace of anxiety on the face of the author of 'Bantu Philosophy'" [23].

Father Tempels is not only the author of "Bantu Philosophy", even though this book was his most important publication during his first stay in Africa. More or less in the margins of his preparatory work for this book, he wrote some ethnographic texts, some politically inspired articles as if they are the bearings of his "Bantu Philosophy".

During the years of his compelled retirement, he also published some pastoral writings.

His second period in Africa was, from 1960 onwards, rather marked by short articles on catechism and the Jamaa; most of these have been collected in "Notre rencontre" and in "Notre rencontre II".

On occasions, his intervention was wanted like, for example, in the case of the book "Aspects of black culture" (1958) and during the "Colloquium on religions" in Abidjan (1961).

Let us add that the works of Tempels are not limited to those which have been published. From the beginning of his missionary life, he had been searching for an adapted catechism for the people among whom he lived; his unpublished text "Mulondisla wa katekismu" bearing witness to this [24]. In between 1933 and 1944, he put together a whole set of documentation pages on oral literature, including 298 popular songs, 252 local sayings with their explanations in Dutch and 1494 children's rhymes, part of which had systematically been divided into themes. All this, as well as various other texts on Bantu life and catechism, has never been edited [25].

Placide Tempels died on 9 October 1977 in Hasselt, Belgium.


[1] On the question of African Philosophy and Father Tempels, see A.J. SMET, Ed., "Philosophie africaine. Textes choisis et Bibliographie sélective". (Library of the Centre d'Etudes des Religions Africaines, 3). Kinshasa, 1975, t.2, p.552: Table analytique; M. BUASSA Mbadu, Père A.J. Smet et la philosophie africaine. Entretien, Etudes critiques, Témoignages. (Recherches Philosophiques Africaines, 27), Kinshasa, Facultés Catholiques de Kinshasa, 1997; A.J., SMET, Philosophie africaine. Bilan bibliographique. African Philosophy. A Bibliographic Survey. 1729-1995. Kinshasa, Facultés Catholiques de Kinshasa, 2002, (offers over 9.000 références, with Systematical Table, Analytical Table and an Index of Names, (in press, Kinshasa, Facultés Catholiques de Kinshasa).

[2] A. KAGAME, L'ethno philosophie des "Bantu", in R. KLIBANSKY (Ed.), La philosophie contemporaine, Chroniques, Florence, 1971, t.4, p.95; see IDEM, La philosophie bantu comparée, Paris, 1976, p.7.

[3] Vient de paraître... R.P. Placide Tempels, La philosophie bantoue, in L'Essor du Congo, Friday, 2 Nov., 1945, p.3, col.3; see other reviewers who had been there right from the beginning: E. DE BRUYNE, Kantteekeningen bij de Bantu philosophie, in Kongo Overzee 10 11 (1945 46), p.255, see une traduction de cet article: Notes marginales à la philosophie bantu, in Fr. BONTINCK, Aux origines de La philosophie bantoue. La correspondance Tempels-Hulstaert (1944-48), Kinshasa, Fac. de Théol. Cath., 1985, p.172-175; E. BOELAERT, La philosophie bantoue selon le R.P. Placide Tempels, in Aequatoria 9 (1946), p.84 85; M. GRIAULE, in Témoignages sur la "Philosophie bantoue"du Père Tempels, in Présence Africaine 7 (1949), p.256; J. HOWLETT, Ibidem, p.261; L. DE SOUSBERGHE, A propos de la philosophie bantoue, in Zaïre 5 (1951), p.821 823.

[4] F. CRAHAY, Le "décollage " conceptuel : conditions d'une philosophie bantoue, in Diogène 52 (1965), p.63.

[5] P. HOUNTONDJI, Histoire d'un mythe, in Présence Africaine (1974) n. 91, p.6.

[6] See V. MULAGO et T. THEUWS, Autour du mouvement de la "Jamaa". (Orientations pastorales, 1), Limete (Léopoldville), 1960; W. DE CRAEMER, Analyse sociologique de la Jamaa. Léopoldville, 1965, polyc,; G.C., Le Père Placide Tempels et les populations bantoues, in Osservatore Romano, 18juin, 1965, p.4; E. SOMERS, Causerie sur la Jamaa, in Revue du Clergé Africain 21 (1966), p.571 581; G. MUKENGE, Le Christ parmi les Africains. Essai autour de la spiritualité Jamaa, (s.l.), 1968, polyc.; J. FABIAN, Philosophie bantoue: Placide Tempels et son oeuvre vus dans une perspective historique, Bruxelles, 1970; W. DE CRAEMER, Jamaa and Ecclesia: a Charismatic Movement in the Congolese Catholic Church, a thesis, Havard University Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973, polic.; La doctrine fondamentale de la Jamaa, Likasi Lubumbashi, 1973, polyc. (notes from the Shaba Bishops' Conference, Zaïre/DRC); ZABALA Rez. PICABEA, Xabier, Etude sociologique de la Jamaa, La cas de Lubumbashi, Unaza, Lubumbashi, 1974, polyc.; IDEM, Réflexions sur la Jamaa, Lubumbashi, 1974, polyc.; ID., La Jamaa, une adaptation explosive, Lubumbashi, 1974, polyc.; A.J. SMET, La Jamaa dans l'oeuvre du Père Tempels, in Les mouvements syncrétiques, Cahiers des Religions Africaines (1978), p.249-264. Against the Jamaa: PERITUS, L'église face à la scandaleuse Jamaa, in Le monde et la vie 155 (1966) n.2, p.24 25 et 62 63; P. MUKENDI, La Jamaa et son avenir, in Revue du Clergé Africain 26, 1971, p. 142 168; M. SERVANT, Veillez et priez car l'heure est proche, il est midi moins cinq, Saint Germain en Lory, (après 1971), p.507 512: Note d'information sur la Jamaa. On the relationship between Jamaa and Kitawala, see Autour de l'affaire Jamaa, Une mise au point de l'archidiocèse, in Taifa (Lubumbashi), 16 oct., 1974, p.5 et 2, signed by Father Damase LEMAIRE.

[7] See F. CRAHAY, a.c., p.62; P. HOUNTONDJI, Remarques sur la philosophie africaine, in Diogène, 71, 1970, p.124; TSHIAMALENGA Ntumba, La vision NTU de l'homme, Essai de philosophie linguistique et anthropologique, in Cahiers des Religions Africaines 7 (1973) n.14, p.179.

[8] See A.J. SMET, Histoire de la philosophie africaine, problèmes et méthode, in La philosophie africaine, Actes de la 1ère Semaine philos. de Kinshasa, 1976, (Recherches Philosophiques Africaines, 1). Kinshasa, Faculty of Catholic Theology, 1977, p.47-68; IDEM, Histoire de la Philosophie Africaine contemporaine, (Cours et Documents, 5), Kinshasa, Faculty of Catholic Theology, 1980, p.109-126: La conception de la philosophie dans l'oeuvre du Père Tempels, reworked article available in Ethique et Société (Recherches Philosophiques Africaines, 5), Kinshasa, Faculty of Catholic Theology, 1980, p.133-344.

[9] Many details from this biography have either been told to us by Father Tempels himself, or they can be found in his unpublished works that he entrusted to us and that we have returned to the OFM Archives in the city of Sint-Truiden (Belgium).

[10] P. TEMPELS, Notre rencontre. Limete Léopoldville, (1962), p.36.

[11] Ibidem, p.37.

[12] Ibidem, p.37.

[13] Ibidem, p.38.

[14] Ibidem, p.38.

15 Ibidem, p.38 39.

[16] ZABALA Rez. PlCABEA, Xabier, S.J., La Jamaa... o.c., p.2.

[17] W. DE CRAEMER, Analyse..., o.c., p.2.

[18] ZABALA Rez. PlCABEA, Xabier, La Jamaa..., o.c., p. 11.

[19] P. TEMPELS, Lettre, in Aspects de la culture noire, Paris, 1958, p.172 173.

[20] W. DE CRAEMER, Analyse..., o.c., p.4 5.

[21] P. TEMPELS, Notre rencontre, o.c., p.35 36; cf. lD., L'homme bantou et le Christ, in Colloque sur les religions, Paris, 1962, p.219.

[22] lD., Notre rencontre, o.c., p.40.

[23] J. MAMBA, La philosophie bantoue, in Dialogue et culture (Brussels) 2 (1964), p.2.

[24] See L. HANSEN, Literaire nalatenschap..., in Franciscana 40 (1985), p.47-49.

       On the works of Tempels, see SMET, A.J., Father Placide Tempels et son oeuvre publiée, in Revue Africane de Théologie 1 (1977) n.1, p.77-128; IDEM, L'oeuvre inédite du Père Placide Tempels, ibidem 1 (1977) n.2, p.219-233, and reworked, in Actes de la 2e Semaine philosophique de Kinshasa, 1977 (Recherches Philosophiques Africaines, 2), Kinshasa, Facultés Catholiques de Kinshasa, 1978, p.331-346; HANSEN, L., De Literaire nalatenschap van P. Placied Tempels O.F.M., in Franciscana 38 (1983), p.147-214; 39 (1984), p.3-42; 40 (1985), p.41-83. SMET, A.J., Bibliographie chronologique du père Placide Tempels. Wezembeek-Oppem, Missieprokuur, 2002, 23 p.

        Introduction to the works of Tempels: - SMET, A.J., (Ed.), Ecrits ethnographiques du P. Placide TEMPELS OFM, introduction by A.J. SMET CP. Wezembeek-Oppem, Missieprokuur, 2000, IV+27 p. - IDEM, (Ed.), Mélanges de philosophie bantu. Recueil de textes du P. Placide TEMPELS OFM., introduction by A.J. SMET CP. Wezembeek-Oppem, Missieprokuur, 2000, IV+94 p. - IDEM, (Ed.), Placide TEMPELS OFM, La Philosophie bantoue. Unpublished translation by E. POSSOZ, Foreword by A.J. SMET CP. Wezembeek-Oppem, Missieprokuur, 2000, VI+74 p. - IDEM, (Ed.), Placide TEMPELS OFM, Philosophie bantoue, augmentée du huitième chapitre inédit. Foreword and critical review of its translation into French by Prof. Dr. A.J. SMET CP., Wezembeek-Oppem, Missieprokuur, 2001, X+137 p.