“Ubuntu” is powerful thinking

Could the philosophy of Ubuntu support community connections, development and economic prosperity in your community?

Ubuntu, a word from the Bantu language, is a South African philosophy about interconnectedness; it accepts that we are all part of something larger. Ubuntu honors the statement, “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

A colleague and I recently returned from northern New Mexico. While there we learned about three cultures that are becoming increasingly antagonistic: the indigenous population, the Anglos and the Hispanics. As with societies across the globe, friction between groups, especially related to race, ethnicity and culture, is not uncommon.

A country with a long history of discrimination and warfare centered on differences of race, ethnicity and culture is South Africa. Through the involvement of many brave individuals, who could put aside unthinkable atrocities for the good of all, something very profound occurred.

Very simply put, enough of the South African population adopted Ubuntu thinking to bring about change. A few actions that supported the good of all included:

  • Forming the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an appointed body that permitted the truth to be publically revealed by the victims and amnesty requested by the offenders
  • Combining two national anthems into one - the former ruling party’s Die Stem van Suid-Afrika and the native Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika
  • Creating a flag that, by using a “V” or “Y,” symbolized a convergence of diverse elements of South African society moving toward unity
  • Adopting Ubuntu, which supports the concept that everyone is part of the whole

The practice of Ubuntu has the potential to significantly change the way groups of people interact with each other. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated in No Future Without Forgiveness, “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.”

In 2008, he expanded on this definition by saying, “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World.”

Is Ubuntu a philosophy that can be adopted by other communities and peoples? The answer is a resounding “yes!”

The practice of Ubuntu has already been embraced by universities, corporations, and other groups in the United States. A group of students at Duke University created a selective living group named Ubuntu “…to ingrain these characteristics in the consciousness of the typical Duke student.”

In the case of New Mexico, or anywhere with conflict between people, it will take a whole-hearted commitment to the Ubuntu philosophy to bring about true understanding and acceptance. As Nelson Mandela points out, “…deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”

For further understanding of Ubuntu and how to put it into practice, there are several articles and books available:

  • “Ubuntu!” By Bob Nelson and Stephan Lundin
  • “Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me” by Michael Battle
  • “The Human Person, African Ubuntu and the Dialogue of Civilizations” by Chris Vervliet
  • “Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu” by Michael Battle

What would it take for your community to work toward adopting Ubuntu as a philosophy for change and transformation?

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