Ubuntu

People in the West have been brought up in a culture of success, where stomach ulcers become status symbols. There is an obsession with achievement, and it seems it does not much matter in what you succeed as long as you do succeed. The worst thing that can happen, it appears, is to fail.” –Desmond Tutu

I spent years trying to master the millennial definition of time management: balancing thousands of extracurricular activities while leading at least half of them, excelling academically, maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends, showcasing a myriad of talents, doing the impossible. Throughout high school and undergrad, I was focused on achieving this version of success, believing that it would bring me happiness.

It was not until I first spent a summer in rural Honduras teaching English and computer literacy courses to Honduran youth with Fundación para la Investigación Participativa con Agricultores de Honduras (FIPAH) that I learned the actual meaning of time management. Employees took their time in starting meetings and ending them, classes almost never began on time, and I was so much happier. And when I studied abroad in Montevideo, Uruguay in the fall semester of my junior year, I found peace once again.

I learned that American college campuses fostered ambitious, driven students who were fed a very specific vision of success. While abroad, however, I finally learned how to live in the present and how to create my own definition of happiness.

Now I am about to depart on a new adventure. I will be serving as an Advocacy Support Officer for the Copperbelt Health Education Project in Kitwe, Zambia as a 2015-2016 Global Health Corps Fellow. As part of the training, I read Desmond Tutu’s exploration of “Ubuntu” (posted below).  I am beyond excited to explore global health, Zambia, new adventures, and more, but more than anything I am excited to learn a new culture that deems humanity and connectedness the highest forms of happiness.


God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, Chapter 2: “Ubuntu” by Desmond Tutu

In our African weltanschauung, our worldview, we have something called ubuntu. In Xhosa, we say, “Umntu ngumtu ngabantu.” This expression is very difficult to render in English, but we could translate it by saying, “A person is a person through other persons.” We need other human beings for us to learn how to be human, for none of us comes fully formed into the world. We would not know how to talk, to walk, to think, to eat as human beings unless we learned how to do these things from other human beings. For us, the solitary human being is a contradiction in terms.

Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks of how humanity is caught up and bound up inextricably with yours. It says, not as Descartes did, “I think, therefore I am” but rather, “I am because I belong.” I need other human beings in order to be human. The completely self-sufficient human being is subhuman. I can be me only if you are fully you. I am because we are, for we are made for togetherness, for family. We are made for complementarity. We are created for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence with our fellow human beings, with the rest of creation.

I have gifts that you don’t have, and you have gifts that I don’t have. We are different in order to know our need of each other. To be human is to be dependent. Ubuntu speaks of spiritual attributes such a generosity, hospitality, compassion, caring, sharing. You could be affluent in material possessions but still be without ubuntu. This concept speaks of how people are more important than things, than profits, than material possessions. It speaks about the intrinsic worth of persons as not dependent on extraneous things such as status, race, creed, gender, or achievement.

In traditional African society, ubuntu coveted more than anything else – more than wealth as measured in cattle and the extent of one’s land. Without this quality a prosperous man, even though he might have been a chief, was regarded as someone deserving of pity and even contempt. It was seen as what ultimately distinguished people from animals – the quality of being human and so also humane. Those who had ubuntu were compassionate and gentle, they used their strength on behalf of the weak, and they did not take advantage of others – in short, they cared, treating others as what they were: human beings. If you lacked ubuntu, in a sense you lacked an indispensable ingredient of being human. You might have had much of the world’s goods, and you might have had position and authority, but if you had no ubuntu, you did not amount to much. Today, ubuntu is still greatly admired, sought after, and cultivated. Only someone to whom something drastic has happened could ever say, as a South African government minister once said, that the death of Steve Biko – the death of a fellow human being – left him cold. That minister had lost his humanity, or was well on the way to doing so.

Westerners have made spectacular advances largely because of their personal individual initiative. They have made remarkable technological advances, for example. And yet that progress has come at a huge cost. The West’s emphasis on individualism has often meant that people are lonely in a crowd, shattered by their anonymity. This is what makes it possible for people to pass by on the other side while someone is, say, being gang-raped: the passersby simply do not want to become too involved. People in the West have been brought up in a culture of success, where stomach ulcers become status symbols. There is an obsession with achievement, and it seems it does not much matter in what you success as long as you do succeed. The worst thing that can happen, it appears, is to fail. And that culture easily dismisses people as expendable, discardable, when, because they are poor or unemployed, they are judged to have failed.

Ubuntu teaches us that our worth is intrinsic to who we are. We matter because we are made in the image of God. Ubuntu reminds us that we belong in one family – God’s family, the human family. In our African worldview, the greatest good is communal harmony. Anything that subverts or undermines this greatest good is ipso facto wrong, evil. Anger and a desire for revenge are subversive of this good thing.

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