What is Ubuntu?

Descartian belief “I think therefore I am” defines a modern man and this “stand alone individuality” is also at core of all liberal values in western civilization.

However African tribes, especially in South Africa, have a diametrically opposite conception of a person or what makes us a person. They do not believe that a person can be an individual just because of his cognitive functions. For them his individuality is relative and can only be defined in terms of his connect to the entire tribe. In other words, a person is a unique human only when he is connected to all others around him by a bond of humanity.

This belief that our humanity makes us human and by extension there is a universal bond of sharing that connects everyone is called UBUNTU.

Under Ubuntu an individual gets defined by the collective: “I am what I am because of who we all are”.

For mutual interaction, this translates to: “We are because you are and since you are, so I am” or more simply: “I am because you are”.

As an individual then, unless I define you first I cannot define myself. Unless I validate you first, I am not validated. Unless I connect with you as a human, I am not a human.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Ubuntu popularizer, defined a person with Ubuntu as:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from 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.

Apart from this inter-connectivity belief at a tribal level, Ubuntu is also about the overflowing human warmth and its expression towards people at large. Nelson Mandela used to say: “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is Ubuntu.”

Story is told of an anthropologist who placed a fruit basket under a tree and invited kids of a tribe to a run. Whoever reached the basket first would win it. To his surprise, the entire field joined hands and ran as a chain to reach the basket together.

They knew their Ubuntu.

Its high time we learned it though !!

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