Ubuntu is an African philosophy that emerged from the Bantu Peoples thousands of years ago. In its simplest form, Ubuntu means that we all belong to each other. The philosophy additionally finds its roots in the Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” or “A person is a person because of other persons”. Fun fact: Ubuntu is entrenched in South Africa’s constitution. Although Ubuntu is fairly easy for one to conceptualize or put in a constitution, in my view it is something that is difficult to fully understand until one immerses her or himself in a culture that places a high degree of value on communitarian notions of humanity.
I came across Ubuntu in December, 2014 while reading Adrienne Clarkson’s Massey Lectures on citizenship and belonging. I did not give the philosophy too much thought until I found out that I was moving to Uganda for the summer in late April. When I arrived here in May, it was almost all I could think about. Since my arrival I have been struggling to illustrate the concept of Ubuntu in a blog entry – especially seeing as I only have a couple thousand words before my reader invariably closes her or his computer or falls asleep. I know it sounds really douchie, but Ubuntu can be felt a lot easier than it can be explained. In any case, with the help of Clarkson and my recent experience at a traditional cultural event, I will do my best to lay out what Ubuntu means to me.
According to Clarkson, Ubuntu means that:
“Each of us is a human being because of other human beings: we depend of each other for our well-being. It then follows that is we depend on others to be human, we are bonded with them. It is only though others that we gain our ability to attain our full humanity.”
Therefore, when we do not root our selfhood in others, we cease to be human.
My understanding of Ubuntu is that the self still exists; however, the individual does not. By way of illustration, as a bound body of “stuff” (i.e., flesh, bones, and maybe a brain) I have a measure of biological agency. I can type a blog entry with my fingers, move to Uganda for a few months with my legs, or read a book with my eyes. Yes, these actions flow from electrical pulses that run through MY brain, but they are rooted in an interconnected web of selfhood that is informed by the collective. In that vein, these actions do not make me human unless they are rooted in something larger than me.
The physical act of moving to Uganda, for instance, carries no significance if nobody is there when I arrive; if nobody is in Canada when I return; and if nobody is impacted by my journey. Without others, the individual act of travel becomes meaningless. By extension, the self does not exist because, in absence of fellow humans, there is nothing for one to root her or his selfhood in.
Clarkson goes onto emphasize that no set religion or school of philosophy can lay claim to Ubuntu. Some of you, for instance, might believe that Ubuntu shares a lot in common with the Christian doctrine of love (or “agape”): “God” created all of us equally; therefore, we must love each other equally. However, as Clarkson notes, this Christian ethic runs contrary to Ubuntu because it sees the individual reaching out to other individuals “as opposed to the identification of the self-coexisting among other selves”.
Further, Ubuntu should not be conflated with sameness. It should rather be seen as shared selfhood that is rooted in diversity and acceptance. After all, if we were all the same then Ubuntu could not exist because we could only root our selfhood in our own ideas. The latter is not civil society, but rather the tyranny of the majority. As Clarkson writes: “We cannot create a civil society by including only the people we like and with whom we share similar interests and goals. That is called friendship. And a society, a country is more than friendship.” Therefore, Ubuntu goes beyond personal relationships and love; it is about understanding that humanity is rooted in the community and that the community is a place of diversity.
The concept that selfhood cannot be rooted in individualism is a little bit jarring for most of us from the West – at the very least, it is quite difficult to fully conceptualize. Believe it or not, most of our discomfort with communitarian thought comes from… drumroll please… Western political philosophy! Yayyyy!
Early liberal philosophers like Hobbes (okay, we was a proto-liberal), Locke, Hume, and Smith heavily emphasized the individual – and rightfully so. In their time, the idea of an autonomous individual (or even sovereign individual) was radical, but pretty justifiable. All of these guys lived under absolute monarchs and did not enjoy too many rights or freedoms as a result. All of their tax money went to the Crown – never to be seen again – and in one way or another Crown owned almost all property. Given the fact that these philosophers were ruled by monarchs, you can see why guys like Locke thought that the ownership of private property was the height of human civilization.
Fortunately, we do not live under absolute monarchs anymore; just Stephen Harper… although these days he is not too far off. Unfortunately, the idea of individual sovereignty has outlived its original enlightenment purpose: empowerment. And while liberal individualism started off as a reaction to tyranny, it has largely continued as the very source of widespread oppression – the source of a lost Ubuntu.
Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, for example, had a strong grasp of Ubuntu before European settlement. Despite centuries of systemic marginalization and racism, many Aboriginals still do. Anybody ever hear of a potlatch? Probably not, the last one happened nearly 100 years ago*. Regrettably, liberal and neoliberal ideologies have gone onto drown out the communal institutions and shared sets of values that allowed Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to thrive for thousands of years prior to European occupation. These are the same values that remain a necessary condition for a “civil” society to exist today.
*I received a comment from a reader who has attended a potlatch; however, she is far younger than 100 years old. I should be more precise and say that they were outlawed in the 1920s, but continued to exist in certain areas. Thanks, Reader!
I first felt inklings of Ubuntu when I arrived in Uganda some weeks ago. Here, boys from different faiths and creeds will often greet one other as “magadawange” or “brother”. More, it is acceptable to call just about any lady, “mama”. For instance, I buy mangos (for 500 schillings a pop!) and other produce from a “mama” who has a fruit stand near the pool I train out of. When I approach her, instead of “hello” or no greeting at all, I say “odotya, mama!” She usually looks up with a smile and quietly says “bulungi, ssebo”. I can only imagine the weird stares that I would get if I called a random lady “mama” in Canada.
Other small pockets of Ubuntu materialize during day to day life. The constant hum of people shouting, laughing, and playing is one of many indicators that Ugandans place a high degree of emphasis on living shared lives. However, like I said before, Ubuntu is something that is very difficult to explain in words; it is understood through participation rather than sheer explanation. To my luck, yesterday I felt Ubuntu loud and clear… I will try to explain.
A few weeks back my Scholars and I were invited to a co-worker’s Kwanjula (or introduction). A Kwanjula is a significant part of Ugandan marriages that dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Its purpose is, quite literally, to introduce the groom to the bride’s family. In the old days, the prospective groom would go to the bride’s village and give her family a number of gifts. The Kwanjula was often the first time that the groom met the bride’s family, and sometimes even the bride herself.
Today, Kwanjula ceremonies have become a bit more commercialized (sometimes luxury items like cars or houses are given to the bride’s family) but still carry a high degree of significance. In fact, after a Kwanjula the bride and groom are legally married in the eyes of the Ugandan government. This is despite the fact that a Kwanjula is almost always followed by a traditional wedding in a church at a later date. More, as was the case yesterday, in modern times the bride and groom usually know each other quite well long before the Kwanjula.
Yesterday was a long day, but one that I will remember for the rest of my life. My Scholars and I hopped in our boss’s car at around 9:00am, ready to put on our traditional Ugandan dress and see what these Kwanjula things were all about. I asked my boss: “So where in Kampala is the introduction”. My boss replied, “It is 200km away from Kampala in the village”. Rachel, Shelby and I immediately exchanged a look of “oh shit”. 200km in Canada might only take a couple of hours to drive, but here in Uganda it can take an entire day if traffic is bad. The situation was worsened by the fact that me and Shelby naively neglected to bring our iPods and headphones.
We arrived in the village four hours later. Traffic was pretty light and we got lucky. After we got into our traditional dresses, we joined the groom’s party and made our way to the tented area where the Kwanjula was set to take place. Rachel does a fantastic job of describing the intricacies of our experiences at the Kwanjula, so I strongly recommend you check out her blog here. Because I am a sadist, I will not give you an interesting play-by-play of the ceremony. Rather, I will reflect on it in light of Ubuntu. No wonder my readership has been falling.
Most of the Kwanjula was literally just that, an introduction. The entire bride’s family was marched out, group by group, to be introduced to the groom and his family. My Scholars and I were considered to be the groom’s family because of the close relationship he shares with our bosses. In fact, my role in the introduction was to serve as a “brother” to the groom. There were some 30 or 40 brothers.
As Ubuntu would have it, the bride was not introduced to the groom or his family until her entire family had been marched out. Why? Because the bride meant nothing until she was put in the context of her extended family. After all, it was her family that raised her into the person she was yesterday. All of her characteristics, including her values, work ethic, and personality, were all a direct consequence of her family and surrounding community. In a sense, the groom was not in love with the bride as an individual, but rather with the collective that shaped her selfhood.
Further, when the bride and groom were officially introduced to each other’s families, their entire lineage was introduced along with them. The master of ceremonies first listed the couples respective parents, then brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grand parents, and great-great-grand parents. If anybody in the lineage was dead, then the MC would indicate where they were buried. The bride and groom were only significant in the eyes of the community when their humanity was rooted in those that lived before them. Ubuntu.
The collective nature of the event became more apparent as the day continued. With each passing hour, more and more people from the village surrounded the tented area where the Kwanjula took place. By the end of the ceremony, without exaggeration, the entire village was watching the event. Children stood on each other’s shoulders, parents stood on railings, and cows even mooed louder than usual. The feeling was inexplicable. Everybody wanted to see the Kwanjula because everybody had a vested interest in the day. The circle of the community was expanding along with its collective conscience and that alone warranted everyone’s presence. It was Ubuntu.
Shocked, I turned to my boss and asked her if the latter was a regular occurrence. She looked at me perplexed and answered, “But of course! Everybody must see the Kwanjula.” At this point the groom had just presented the bride’s brother with a chicken, which signified the couple’s legal union in the eyes of the Ugandan church. As the brother walked away, Rachel turned to me and said, “The chicken is secure. I repeat, the chicken is secure”. I turned back to her and said, “No chicken, no wife!” Well, at least we think we are funny…
The most prominent example of Ubuntu occurred during dinner after the ceremony. The groom was gracious enough to invite me and my Scholars to eat dinner with him and a few other guests in a private room. During dinner I had a fascinating chat with one of the groom’s “brothers”. The chat mostly revolved around the antiquated patriarchal structures that are embedded in Kwanjula ceremonies, but that is another LONG story for another day. During our conversation, the brother said something quite interesting to me. He thanked me for coming and participating in such a significant cultural event. He said that, “when you do not participate you do not exist”. In other words, my participation in his community on that day was a necessary condition for my existence.
He went on to say that many muzungus come to Africa and observe without participating. They focus on their individual experiences without taking the time to become a part of the community that surrounds them. According to this particular brother, people that observe others without inserting themselves into their communities are not human, but rather individuals. And individuals are a non-entity in a community because they do not experience reality in the context of their environment.
It would be foolish to say that I do not fall into the latter category from time to time. That said, I always feel worse when I opt to observe as an individual rather than participate as a human. For instance, a swim practice is always far more enjoyable when I have teammates by my side; a movie or play is no fun if I cannot spend the evening with my friends; reading a book becomes much more engaging when I can discuss it with a few other. All of the above actions can be done individually, but become far more enjoyable when they are shared with others. Why? Because we become humans when we share lives with other people. In other words, we are Ubuntu.