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‘UBUNTU’ in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because we are”.


An anthropologist proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the kids that who ever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the fruits for himself they said: ”UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”

‘UBUNTU’ in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because we are”.

I don’t speak Xhosa, so I am not sure if this is true but it was such a good story I wanted to share it as soon as I opened the email it came in;-)

As a child I was confused by competition due to feeling much the same as those children. Being aspie I was naturally good at most things in school, but I felt terrible when the other children were sad when they didn’t do well. I did not understand why we had to do things in a way that made such distinctions.

Why not learn together, work together so that each person’s skills help the others and all learn more? Of course when I tried to propose this I got into trouble repeatedly-hierarchy likes nothing less than a refusal to play by its arbitrary rules!

People told me I shouldn’t care because I was the one who was “winning”, but to me winning was no fun if someone else had to lose. Their sadness hurt my heart a lot more than any any joy in my own “success” could heal.

In high school I became very ill, and eventually totally disabled. Now I’m the one “losing”. I don’t like having no money, living in a bed and all the rest-there are plenty of things I long to do that are out of reach; but at least now I’m not making anyone else feel bad about themselves.

Life has taught me that humility is the truth-none of us is anything without the whole systems of which we are functioning parts. Having to ask strangers for help getting the bathroom door open brings this clearly into focus-especially if you have to wait a while for one to show up!;-)

I would love to live in a society where this concept of Ubuntu was the standard. What a joy each day would be without all the strife and struggle that characterize our competitive capitalist “dog eat dog” society!

I have on occasion felt bad for being such a “loser” by society’s standards. But it has just occurred to me that in my own value system I’m not a loser for not participating effectively in a hierarchical/ dominator system with which I completely disagree. (not that I really had a choice;-)

I wonder if it is even possible to work to dismantle something while actively participating in it?

Yet again Audre Lourde has inspired my learning, growth and understanding, literally decades after I read her work…I *finally* understand what “You cannot tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools” really means.

You cannot beat the colonizer at his own game, you cannot “Fix” what is wrong using the system designed to make it wrong in the first place.

The colonizer sets up a system based on selfishness, cruelty and oppression and then calls those who refuse to participate “savages” and works to exterminate them and take their resources.

Love is hate, peace is war, and the most loving and egalitarian are the savages….I do believe Mr Orwell was telling a home truth about how things are done, don’t you?

Language is a very powerful program for our minds, when we choose our language, we choose our future. How we choose to speak, affects how we understand and perceive, and thus how we choose to act and believe.

I have copied below some sections from the wikipedia article on Ubuntu for a historical perspective on this story-

Ubuntu: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” (From a definition offered by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee.)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered a definition in a 1999 book:[7]

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.

Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008:[8]

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality Ubuntu you are known for your generosity. 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. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows:[9]

A traveller 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, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

Tim Jackson refers to Ubuntu as a philosophy that supports the changes he says are necessary to create a future that is economically and environmentally sustainable.[10]

Judge Colin Lamont expanded on the definition during his ruling on the hate speech trial of Julius Malema:[11]

Ubuntu is recognised as being an important source of law within the context of strained or broken relationships amongst individuals or communities and as an aid for providing remedies which contribute towards more mutually acceptable remedies for the parties in such cases. Ubuntu is a concept which:

  1. is to be contrasted with vengeance;
  2. dictates that a high value be placed on the life of a human being;
  3. is inextricably linked to the values of and which places a high premium on dignity, compassion, humaneness and respect for humanity of another;
  4. dictates a shift from confrontation to mediation and conciliation;
  5. dictates good attitudes and shared concern;
  6. favours the re-establishment of harmony in the relationship between parties and that such harmony should restore the dignity of the plaintiff without ruining the defendant;
  7. favours restorative rather than retributive justice;
  8. operates in a direction favouring reconciliation rather than estrangement of disputants;
  9. works towards sensitising a disputant or a defendant in litigation to the hurtful impact of his actions to the other party and towards changing such conduct rather than merely punishing the disputant;
  10. promotes mutual understanding rather than punishment;
  11. favours face-to-face encounters of disputants with a view to facilitating differences being resolved rather than conflict and victory for the most powerful;
  12. favours civility and civilised dialogue premised on mutual tolerance.


In the Tswana language the same concept exists. It is called botho, and the phrase that a person is a person through other people translates to motho ke motho ka batho. Botho is one of Botswana’s five national principles (the others being Democracy, Development, Self Reliance and Unity).[citation
] Botswana’s Vision 2016 states: Botho defines a process for earning respect by first giving it, and to gain empowerment by empowering others. It encourages people to applaud rather than resent those who succeed. It disapproves of anti-social, disgraceful, inhuman and criminal behaviour, and encourages social justice for all.


In Malawi, the same philosophy is called “uMunthu”.[12] Malawian philosophers have been writing about uMunthu for years. According to the Catholic Diocese of Zomba bishop Rt. Rev. Fr. Thomas Msusa, The African worldview is about living as one family, belonging to God.[13] Msusa noted that in Africa We say I am because we are, or in Chichewa kali kokha nkanyama, tili awiri ntiwanthu (when you are on your own you are as good as an animal of the wild; when there are two of you, you form a community). The philosophy of uMunthu has been passed on through proverbs such as Mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe, ukachenjera manja udya naye (your neighbor’s child is your own, his/her success is your success too).[13] Some notable Malawian uMunthu philosophers and intellectuals who have written about this worldview are Augustine Musopole, Gerard Chigona, Chiwoza Bandawe, Richard Tambulasi, Harvey Kwiyani and Happy Kayuni. This includes Malawian philosopher and theologist Harvey Sindimas treatment of uMunthu as an important African philosophy is highlighted in his 1995 book Africas Agenda: The legacy of liberalism and colonialism in the crisis of African values.[14]

In film, the English translation of the proverb lent its hand to forming the title of Madonna‘s documentary, “I Am Because We Are” about Malawian orphans.

Rwanda and Burundi

In Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, the national languages respectively for Rwanda and Burundi, ubuntu means, among other things, ‘human generosity’ as well as humanity (as above). In Rwanda and Burundi society it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to “gira ubuntu” meaning to “have consideration and be humane” towards others; thus it has the extended meanings of ‘generosity’ and ‘free, given at no cost’. It also has the general meaning of “human’s essence”, which also include the other meanings of the word, as it will be said of a person who shows no mercy nor consideration to others that he is an animal (igikoko, inyamaswa).


In Kitara, a dialect cluster spoken by the Nyankore, Nyoro, Tooro, and Kiga of western Uganda and also the Haya, Nyambo and others of northern Tanzania, obuntu refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humane-ness towards others in the community. In Ganda, the language of central Uganda, obuntu bulamu means being humane, showing kindness and refers to the same characteristics.In Lugwere, a language spoken in eastern Uganda, Kobuntu means the behaviour generally accepted by humans and its natural characteristics.[15]

Kenya and Tanzania

In Kiswahili, a language spoken throughout the coast of East Africa and some of Kenya, the word may refer to “utu”, which means humanness. It is a concept that condemns acts and deeds that seem unfair even in the slightest. The Bantu speakers of East Africa are believed to have originated from the Congo basin and in precolonial times “utu” was the main philosophy governing them. It meant that everything that was done was for the benefit of the whole community. In Luhya (umundu), Kikuyu (undu), Kamba, Meru (untu) and Kisii languages, spoken mainly in the Western, Central, Eastern and Nyanza provinces of Kenya, the “umundu” stands for humanness or the act of being humane to other human beings and to nature in general.

(there is more to the article which can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_%28philosophy%29)

I really liked the ‘see also’ section for this article-it seems this underlying truth has been suppressed by the colonizers but never forgotten by the people anywhere on Earth.

They burned the library at Alexandria(and many others) to prevent exactly what is happening now-I guess they didn’t count on all those oral tradition peoples having such good memories or that Asian people had libraries too;-)

See also

Author: ohnwentsya

Be the change you wish to see, let's co-create the win-win future we know is possible together!

17 thoughts on “‘UBUNTU’ in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because we are”.

  1. This is an interesting article that I am going to have to study more closely. The Xhosa have Nelson Mandela and Desmund Tutu as members. I have done an initial study of the Xhosa and I will be going deeper at some point, they express a lot of ideas I identify with.

    • Wow wordpress just let me see this comment. I am sorry I did not reply sooner.I really respect tribal groups who have been able to maintain their cultural values in spite of colonization. Even those who have to reconstruct and rebuild are imho doing a service to humanity by doing so. Colonized culture is basically suicidally unsustainable.
      Have you ever read The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper? She mentions in there the similarities and likely connections among our ancient tribal ancestors in Britain, Africa and the Americas. Not directly but she makes it visible at least:-)

      • I have never read The Dark is Rising. I shall check this book series out, thanks for the recommendation. In my opinion animist cultures have much to teach humanity about returning to harmony with nature.

  2. 😦 I actually share many of the same feelings. Pretty soon I noticed that for someone to ‘win’, someone else had to ‘lose’, and I thought ‘I don’t want to be the loser OR the winner…so what can I be? Can’t I go to a place which is equal and isn’t mad?’

    So then I end up on denise’s blog.

    Funny because I click this page because I use UBUNTU operating system on my PC… But I agree so much with the content of the post.

    • I love Denise’s blog:-) I think we can make the whole world or at least most of it work in the egalitarian ubuntu framework. After all imho it works better thst way and was designed to do so;-)
      Bucky Fuller even proved th as t it works better with his invention called The World Game.
      Thank you for commenting. It nnprois always beautiful to be reminded that I am not alone or just too eccentric for feeling this way!

      • I prayed to my heart for ‘help’ and then I quickly found your blog – It was so comforting for me to find others who feel this way 🙂

        It’s too easy to feel ‘alone’ and like a failure in this world when you don’t want to follow along with dark hierarchy… Like you said, it easily makes you look like a ‘failure’ in the eyes of many.


  3. Thanks so much for following my blog and for sharing my article. The concept of Ubuntu as described above is really the essence of being human, isn’t it? I just loved the quotes and also loved your personal, honest perspective. And I have learnt a lot from this. I have saved it to refer to in the future. Thank you, and warm greetings from Kingston, Jamaica!

    • Thank you! I agree ubuntu is the essence of being human. I only hope more if the colonized remember that and refind their hearts.
      I was feeling down from seeing so much hate/anger and negative things online today and your post so lifted my heart and reminded me that the people still stranded in hate are not all there is:-). It is good to meet you I am looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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  8. they said: ”UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”….a lesson for us all…….thank you for sharing this beautiful lesson for us!

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  10. Wonderful! This is what we all need! United we stand, divided we fall!

  11. Great article that should continue to be spread. Especially now. According to the UN Refugee Council, we have 15 million displaced refugees because of war and religious terrorism. It has not been so bad since World War 2!!! ….
    Just to add to a rarely mentioned fact. The late Tanzanian President Mwalimu ( teacher) Julius Nyerere was one of a few African leaders to try implementing the idea of living together in harmony. Ujamaa. Family in Kiswahili. You have it on your endnotes.
    The policy functioned admnist fierce national & international opposition from 1967 until 1985. Nyerere was one of the few leaders to die without any personal riches. Compared to millionaires like Mobutu, Kenyatta etc
    In his time Tanzanians assisted many others materially & morally. Without qualm. For example getting rid of dictator & killer Idi Amin of Uganda in 1979, morally supporting Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of 1966-1970, supporting Eritrea, hosting refugees from Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, USA, Palestine etc. First African country to have a Palestinian state Embassy in 1982, etc.
    Ujamaa with its so called ” failures” -to paraphrase critics- is truly an example of Ubuntu in action …

    • Thank you for sharing this info. I was unaware of that leader having been so very different from the others.
      It’s beautiful how powerful ancestral/cultural wisdom can be to transform even groups heavily scarred by colonization.

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