Written by Kojo Baffoe
The discussion around ‘Ubuntu’ and what it means is one that came to prominence following the first democratic elections in South Africa but, to be honest, it has always felt like a feel-good concept to band around like ‘rainbow nation’ in those early years. It was packaged and sold as a uniquely South African value although, when you look around, it does seem to have been something that isn’t practised as much as it should. And yet, it is something that should form the fabric of any and every society if you consider Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s description of it:
“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 dehumanise them.”
Reading this makes me wonder whether we have lost sight of the meaning of Ubuntu and have spent too much time concerned about how it is a “South African” thing. Yes, the word is South African but I believe this spirit is ingrained in all African cultures, just by a different name, if there is a name for it at all. It is found in the writings of people like Eckhart Tolle, John Kehoe, Deepak Chopra and Paolo Coelho, amongst many others.
In the last year or so, I have been reading and attempting to practice Stoicism. According to DailyStoic.com, “Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behaviour, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.”
I have also been fascinated by Confucianism which is described by Britannica.com, “Confucianism, a Western term that has no counterpart in Chinese, is a worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. Sometimes viewed as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion, Confucianism may be understood as an all-encompassing way of thinking and living that entails ancestor reverence and a profound human-centred religiousness.”
And, in a discussion with some friends on Ubuntu, one asked the question, “why can’t Ubuntu be developed as a way of life, in the same way that we explore mindfulness and other such things?” I had no answer to why we can’t. If you look at the words of Archbishop Tutu, the foundation for a philosophy of sorts is there. It just needs us to unpack and package it, for the good, and not just pay lip-service to it.
I would like to think that these few words could serve as a starting point. How are you practising ubuntu in your life?