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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.

Botswana

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
needed
] 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.

Malawi

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).

Uganda

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


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Living Compassion Weekly Tips Series – Week 29

“Which game do you want to play? ‘Who’s right,’ or ‘Let’s make life more wonderful’?”

– Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication:
A Language of Life

Living Compassion Tip — Week 29

The Web of Life

“We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
– Chief Seattle

Interdependence is a basic human needs. Our web of life is woven with acceptance, closeness, community, contribution, empathy, love, respect, support and trust.

We all know how crucial these various aspects of interdependence are. To understand ourselves, we must first ask:

How important to me is:

acceptance?
community?
contribution?
respect?
support?
trust?

Once we have an idea of our own level of need in the area of interdependence we can understand our part as a “strand” in the web of life.

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Mindful Practice for the Week

Spend some time this week defining the various aspects of Interdependence for yourself. Explore how these needs play themselves out in your daily interactions. Enjoy your week!

Get this tip from a friend? Sign up for your Living Compassion NVC Tip Series here.
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