Ubuntu - an African Philosophy (i am because we are)
An attempt at a longer definition has been made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999):
“ A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. ”
Louw (1998) suggests that the concept of ubuntu defines the individual in terms of their several relationships with others, and stresses the importance of ubuntu as a religious concept. He states that while the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu ("a person is a person through (other) persons") may have no apparent religious connotations in the context of Western society, in an African context it suggests that the person one is to become by behaving with humanity is an ancestor worthy of respect or veneration. Those who uphold the principle of ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living.
Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows;
“ A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn´t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve? ”
Change in South Africa
Ubuntu is seen as one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa, and is connected to the idea of an African Renaissance Mellerenimium. In the political sphere, the concept of ubuntu is used to emphasize the need for unity or consensus in decision-making, as well as the need for a suitably humanitarian ethic to inform those decisions.
The concept of ubuntu is illustrated in the film In My Country, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche. It inspired the title of the documentary film I Am Because We Are directed by Nathan Rissman and produced by Raising Malawi founder Madonna.
In the Shona language, the majority spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, ubuntu is unhu. The concept of ubuntu is viewed the same in Zimbabwe as in other African cultures, and the Zulu saying is also common in Shona: munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu.
Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange (1980), highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism which shape this philosophy : The first maxim asserts that ´To be human is to affirm one´s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.´ And ´the second maxim means that if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life´. The third ´maxim´ as a ´principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy´ says ´that the king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him´.
While sharing is incorporated within "unhu" it is only one of the multiplicity of virtues within "unhu". In the "unhu" domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions — all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try their best to make visitors comfortable — and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality. This explains how David Livingstone survived on his journeys in Southern Africa especially among ubuntu-oriented societies of the time.
Other manifestations of ubuntu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a representative role, in which the individual effectively stands for the people among whom he comes from at all times. The individual identity is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual. Thus, families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for. "Unhu" embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.
A key concept associated with "unhu" is how we behave and interact in our various social roles, e.g., daughters-in-law traditionally kneel down when greeting their parents-in-law and serve them food as a sign of respect and maintain the highest standards of behaviour that will be extended or reflected to her family and all the women raised in that family. The daughter-in-law does this as part of the ambassadorial function that she plays and assumes at all times. However, this does not apply only to daughters-in-law but to all women in general, even among friends and equals such as brother and sister, and this does not imply that the woman is subordinate to the man, or sister to brother. Its all essentially considered to be a characteristic of having "unhu" and a social interaction within the context of "unhu". The demands imposed upon men within the context of "unhu" are more physically demanding than that placed upon the woman.
Under "unhu" children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with "unhu" will never allow any child around him to be an orphan.
The concept of "unhu" also constitute the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, crimes committed by one individual on another extend far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications to the people among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes from. Unhu jurisprudence tend to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim´s family and the accused´s family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of "tertiary perpetrator" to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society where the individual perpetrator hails from. However, the punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating "unhu" or "ubuntu". A leader who has "unhu" is selfless and consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects and lives among his subjects and shares what he owns. A leader who has "unhu" does not lead but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with "unhu".
Rwanda and Burundi
In Kinyarwanda, the mother tongue in Rwanda, and In Kirundi, the mother tongue in Burundi, ubuntu means, among other things, ´human generosity´ as well as humanity (as above). In Rwanda and Burundi society it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to "gira ubuntu" meaning to "have consideration and be humane" towards others.
Uganda and Tanzania
In Runyakitara which is the collection of dialects spoken by the Banyankore, Banyoro, Batooro and Bakiga of Western Uganda and also the Bahaya, Banyambo and others of Northern Tanzania, "obuntu" refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humane-ness towards others in the community. In Luganda, the dialect of Central Uganda "obuntu-bulamu" refers to the same characteristics.
Ubuntu - African Philosophy (i am because we are)
Ubuntu, a Bantu word, defines what it means to be truly human. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.
Yesterday, I saw a photograph on Yahoo News of young Israeli girls writing messages on war missiles. I assume, given that these same missiles were intended for Lebanon, that the messages weren´t of peace and prosperity for the Lebanese. But I wonder if these girls completely understood the implications of the missiles – that, when launched, they will, in all likelihood, kill or maim other little girls, who just happen to be Lebanese. Empathy seems to be in pretty short order these days, so probably it won´t even matter to them. Equally appalling is that these sentiments are perhaps as, if not more, rabidly reflected in the opposite camp. Spreading hate as adults is vile enough, but to teach it to your own children is unforgivable.
Perhaps half the troubles in this world would be over if parents gave up saying, I don´t want you to talk, play or associate in any way with them, I won´t allow you to get to know them, I don´t want you to like them, because, get this straight, they are not like us - they are gooks or kikes or hajis or huns or niggers and so on – everything except people like us. The emphasis being on ´Not like us and therefore a whole lot less worthy of inhabiting this planet than we are.´
Perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place if more emphasis was placed instead on teaching respect, decency, and tolerance, on teaching Ubuntu.
What is Ubuntu?
The word ´Ubuntu´ originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa, and is pronounced as uu-Boon-too.
It is a traditional African philosophy that offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities. Or as the Zulus would say, "Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu", which means that a person is a person through other persons. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.
The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as:
"It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."
Religious Aspect of Ubuntu:
For many Africans, while they may belong to different societies and have different traditions and rituals, Ubuntu usually has a strong religious meaning. In general, the African belief is that your ancestors continue to exist amongst the living in the form of spirits and they are your link to the Divine Spirit. If you are in distress or need, you approach your ancestors´ spirits and it is they who will intercede on your behalf with God. Therefore it is important to not only venerate your ancestors, but to, eventually, yourself become an ancestor worthy of veneration. For this, you agree to respect your community´s rules, you undergo initiation to establish formal ties with both the current community members and those that have passed on, and you ensure harmony by adhering to the Ubuntu principles in the course of your life.
Political Aspect of Ubuntu:
Since the downfall of Apartheid in South Africa, Ubuntu is often mentioned in the political context to bring about a stronger sense of unity.
On 19 February 1997, the South African National Assembly passed the White Paper For Social Welfare, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Minister for Welfare and Population Development, announced:
"The passage of the White Paper for Social Welfare through the National Assembly signals the start of a new era in welfare delivery in South Africa. For the first time in our country´s history delivery in the welfare field will be driven by key principles such as democracy, partnership, ubuntu, equity, and inter-sectoral collaboration, among others."
The policy of Ubuntu is explained in the White Paper, published in August 1997, in Point 24 of Chapter 2. National Developmental Social Welfare Strategy -
"The principle of caring for each other’s well-being will be promoted, and a spirit of mutual support fostered. Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and theirs in turn through a recognition of the individual’s humanity. Ubuntu means that people are people through other people. It also acknowledges both the rights and the responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being."
It is not perfect, however. Ubuntu – which stresses on allowing every individual to have their equal say in any discussion and on ultimately reaching an agreement acceptable to all – could lead to conformist behavior in order to achieve solidarity. It seems a trifle ironic that Group Politics and the Herd Mentality – the human qualities common to us all, in fact - could derail the quest for the common goal.
Social Aspect of Ubuntu:
Still, as they say, the good points outweigh the shortcomings.
Given the vast racial, cultural, religious, educational, and socio-economic differences apparent not just in South-African society but the world over currently, the concept of Ubuntu is really rather relevant. It is far too easy to go into the ´us and them´ mode. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of judging a different people by our standards or by sticking to certain established stereotypical notions. If you instead regard someone as a fellow human being, all individual quirks and differences taken into account, there is perhaps a greater chance of achieving understanding.
And, achieving understanding is important and necessary, because, like it or not, we are all interconnected. What hurts you could one day come around and hurt me. What benefits me, if I´m not too selfish about it, could make a crucial difference in your life. And knowing you could bring a world of meaning and interest in mine.