Last year, while reading an international magazine called flow, I came across a word that made me sit up and pay attention. The word is Ubuntu, a Zulu and Xhosa word that means our common humanity.
Intrigued, I decided to learn more about the African philosophy of Ubuntu, reading books and articles, including The Lessons of Ubuntu by Mark Mathabane, who also wrote the memoir Kaffir Boy. Ubuntu encompasses ideas such as respect, caring about each other, empathy, spirituality, and that we are inextricably connected to each other, even when we do not recognize it. It means that I am a person because of other people, or as they say in South Africa, “I am, because of you.”
It is a balancing act—recognizing that individuals have unique gifts to offer the group or humanity, while believing no one individual is more important than the group. This kind of balance requires careful thought, especially in a culture that celebrates individual accomplishment.
At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, President Barack Obama spoke of Ubuntu as Mandela’s gift, “his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye, that there is a oneness to humanity that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us…”
During 2019, I sought to learn more about what Ubuntu is, and began to see the world and its troubles in a new and more hopeful way. In 2020, I hope to go more deeply into both an understanding and practice of Ubuntu, trying to see the ways we are linked despite the differences that keep us apart.