What Is Ubuntu?
By Mungi Ngomane
Ubuntu is a way of life from which we can all learn. And it’s one of my favourite words. Whoever we are, wherever we live, whatever our culture, ubuntu can help us co-exist in harmony and peace.
My grandfather coined the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ for South Africa, after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, to symbolize the unity of its cultures after the collapse of apartheid. I was lucky enough to be raised in a community, which taught me ubuntu as soon as I was able to walk and talk. My grandfather explained the essence of ubuntu as, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’
In my family, we were brought up to understand that a person who has ubuntu is one whose life is worth emulating. The bedrock of the philosophy is respect, for yourself and for others. So if you’re able to see other people, even strangers, as humans you will never treat them as disposable or without worth.
Ubuntu teaches us to look outside ourselves to find answers. It’s about seeing the bigger picture; the other side of the story. The meaning of the word ‘ubuntu’ varies between African countries and tribes. Rooted in Zulu wisdom, the philosophy of ubuntu has been passed down by word of mouth for generations.
I aspire to live by its teachings in my everyday life. By introducing this philosophy to you, I hope it enhances your life experience as much as it has enhanced mine. I hope it encourages you to reach out to the people around you – both friends and strangers – who make you who you are.
Lesson one: See yourself in other people
If we are able to see ourselves in other people, our experience in the world will inevitably be a richer, kinder, more connected one. If we look at others and see ourselves reflected back, we inevitably treat people better.
This is ubuntu. Ubuntu shouldn’t be confused with kindness, however. Kindness is something we might try to show more of, but ubuntu goes much deeper. It recognizes the inner worth of every human being – starting with you.
Ubuntu tells us we are only who we are thanks to other people. Of course we have our parents to credit for bringing us into the world, but beyond this there are hundreds – if not thousands – of relationships, big and small, along the way, which teach us something about life and how to live it well. Our parents or guardians teach us how to walk and talk. Our teachers at school teach us how to read and write. A mentor might help us find fulfilling work. A lover might teach us emotional lessons, both good and bad – we learn from all experiences. Every interaction will have brought us to where we are today.
However, in the West we are also taught that it’s a badge of honour to claim to be self-made. We applaud those whom we perceive as having achieved fame and fortune through their own efforts, happy to overlook the fact that nothing can be achieved in a vacuum. We are further taught that competition leads to self-fulfillment and progression, even though pitting yourself against others leads to unhelpful comparisons and a grinding sense of not being enough.
How often have you compared your own life to someone else’s and felt worse off? How often do you crave more, however much you already have? A bigger house. More money. More work, more time off.
However wonderful it is to celebrate the good things in our friends’ lives, many of us also follow hundreds – sometimes thousands – of strangers who appear to live lives that are richer, more fun and shinier than our own. These are people who we don’t know personally but who influence what we long to buy, the way we feel and our aspirations. The subtext is that an ‘influencer’ is a better person than the ordinary person.
Ubuntu teaches us the opposite of this and says that absolutely everyone on this earth is of equal value because our humanity is what matters the most. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should value other people’s contributions to our day-to-day life.