In this three-part series, Toronto Review correspondent Sigrun Marie Moss will examine Ubuntu, the meta-philosophy of Sub-Saharan Africa. It means, essentially, “A person is a person because of persons.” This thinking permeates daily life in most sub-Saharan African countries. It maintains that the boundary between you and others is not as marked as in the West, that you share what you have, are a part of a united whole where all cooperate and work together towards a common solution. It is described as a cultural tool of conflict resolution, a way of life and a uniting force. But could it also be a detrimental factor hindering business development and fostering conflict in Africa?
By Sigrun Marie Moss
PEMBA, TANZANIA—“I am myself through you.” That is the essence of ubuntu, an ancient African meta-philosophy in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is often described as including the essential human virtues of compassion and humanity. The word itself originates from the South African languages Xhosa and Zulu, and is often said to stem from this proverb: “A person is a person because of persons.” According to Desmond Tutu (1999:42), it is difficult to translate the concept into western language. “Ubuntu is about the pure essence of being human. Rather than ‘I think, therefore I am,’ the focus is on ‘I am human because I belong, I participate, I share,’ ” he wrote.
Having travelled and lived in Africa it quickly becomes evident that the sense of unity and togetherness is far removed from the ways of the global north. Walking around Pemba, almost every person you pass will greet you, and rarely only with a simple Hujambo or Salama. No, they will inquire about your health, your family, your news, your day, your yesterday, your home, and welcome you to their island. People shout from the roadside when you drive past, that you shouldn’t pass their hut without coming in for tea. People who have very little offer, share all they have with you.
This sense of unity is one of the core aspects of the ubuntu philosophy. Murithi (2006:1) defines ubuntu as a “cultural world-view… that highlights the essential unity of humanity and emphasizes the importance of constantly referring to the principles of empathy, sharing and cooperation in our efforts to resolve our common problems.” Ubuntu is used as a cultural tool of conflict resolution, but also as a way of life where emphasis is placed on unity and sharing.
Ubuntu is widely spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and is especially prominent in rural areas, where villages and large geographic swathes work as united communities. According to Berg (2004), ubuntu transcends family and ethnic groups. It is said ubuntu originated with tribal and clan structures, where the leader would show his concern and care for his people in a selfless manner and could thus expect them to do the same for each other (Berg, 2004).
Ubuntu as a strategy or quality
Descriptions of ubuntu vary: some see it as a technique or strategy (Murithi, 2006); others, as a human quality (Nussbaum, 2003). Many see it as both.
If seen as a human quality, ubuntu is about putting people in a frame of mind where they think of each other as interconnected, as exemplified by this greeting from Zimbabwe: “How has your day been? My day has been good, if your day has been good” (Nussbaum, 2003:22). This would make ubuntu a very broad category, including all forms of togetherness, unity, empathy, compassion, and sharing.
Ubuntu as a conflict resolution technique gained global prominence through Mandela’s utilization of the philosophy in the struggles in South Africa, as well as through Desmond Tutu’s use of it in the aftermath of the apartheid in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ubuntu is a “head-on” way of dealing with conflict. It is founded on bringing the problems out in the open through discussions, the possibility for the whole community to partake in the process, and dealing with the transgression in an orderly and focused manner.
“The wisdom of this process lies in the recognition that it is not possible to build a healthy community at peace with itself unless past wrongs are acknowledged and brought out into the open so that the truth of what happened can be determined and social trust and solidarity renewed through a process of forgiveness and reconciliation” (Murithi, 2006:21).
The social unity in many African countries holds many lessons for the global north. Being on a small pick up van from Stone Town to Kizimkazi in Unguja, Tanzania, the car fills up beyond belief. A woman comes on with her toddler. While struggling to get on the bus, she puts her baby on my lap. I happily hold the little one, waiting for her to settle comfortably in her seat, but when I move to give the baby back to her, she just shrugs. I thus travel the full one and a half hours with her child on my lap – not an act of laziness on her behalf, simply a feeling of the baby being a common responsibility. He could just as well travel the journey on my lap as on hers.
There are remarkably few orphans in Africa, considering the high number of children without their parents. In Zimbabwe, a country with one of the highest rankings of children who have lost both parents, some 98 percent of these children are taken care of by other family members. Visiting Chambani, in the south of Pemba, I was introduced to a friend’s grandmother. I was confused, since I had been told both his parents’ mothers had passed away. Then two other elderly women came in and were also introduced as his grandmothers. I was puzzled and asked which one of the ladies was actually his father’s mother. “None of them gave birth to him, but all of them are his mothers,” he told us. As Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu: “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.”
Where does the unity end?
Articles on ubuntu (see Malan, 1997, Nussbaum, 2003, Berg, 2004, Murithi, 2006) portray the philosophy as important, impressive, and magnificent in its results and ways, presenting little or no criticism. Are the ways of ubuntu really only positive?
In the next article I will discuss how ubuntu affects business in sub-Saharan Africa. Your problem is not your problem alone, people share, help and assist each other. But how will you prosper if you constantly need to share your revenues rather than investing them? I will look at frustrated Nigerian businessmen who get hustled out of their proceeds, Sudanese workers who have to give away their entire first salary, and Tanzanian workers who need to support every family member before being able to invest their money.
The third article in this series will focus on ubuntu and conflict. Africa is conflict ridden, and many have advocated the use of cultural conflict resolution tools to deal with the continent’s many protracted conflicts. Ubuntu places much emphasis on the community. What about those not included in the community? Can ubuntu make the differences between groups larger? Does ubuntu function as a continent specific factor that hinders the regional disputes seen in Africa from becoming as extensive as these would have grown elsewhere, or does it possibly contribute to enhance group friction?
Berg, A. (2004). Ubuntu – a contribution to the “civilization of the universal”, in T. Singer & S. L. Kimbles (Eds): The cultural complex. Contemporary Jungian perspectives on psyche and society. New York: Brunner – Routledge.
Malan, J. (1997). Conflict resolution wisdom from Africa. Durban: ACCORD.
Murithi, T. (2006). African approaches to building peace and social solidarity. The international conference on strategies for peace with development in Africa, The University for Peace, & the African union, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 12 – 14 June 2006.
Nussbaum, B. (2003). Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African on our common humanity. Society for organizational learning. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Tutu, D. M. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.