The Meaning of Ubuntu

By Shan­non Clark 

I am what I am because of what we all are.”

To me, this phrase speaks to a lot of aspects of my time in South Africa this past sum­mer. The phrase describes Ubuntu, a South African phi­los­o­phy refer­ring to the con­nec­tion between all people.

This past sum­mer, I spent a month in Cape Town, South Africa with 41 other stu­dents from North­east­ern. We got the chance to work with local com­pa­nies, micro-entrepreneurs and stu­dents from TSiBA, the Ter­tiary School in Busi­ness Administration.

In his book No Future With­out For­give­ness, Desmond Tutu says the fol­low­ing about Ubuntu: “A per­son with Ubuntu is open and avail­able to oth­ers, affirm­ing of oth­ers, does not feel threat­ened that oth­ers are able and good, for he or she has 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.”

One day dur­ing class, the TSiBA stu­dents told us about the mean­ing of Ubuntu and how it fits into their every day lives. They told sto­ries about how in their cul­ture, every­one shares a cer­tain con­nect­ed­ness – it’s like every­one has a deep sense of appre­ci­a­tion for one another that comes with truly accept­ing that we are all one peo­ple. All of the North­east­ern stu­dents tried to think if we had a sim­i­lar word in Eng­lish. We thought of sim­ple words like “com­pas­sion” and “empa­thy,” but we couldn’t think of an Eng­lish word that encom­passes what Ubuntu does. I think this really shows each culture’s val­ues: Amer­ica val­ues a highly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic, everyone-for-themself soci­ety, while South Africa val­ues com­mu­nity and connection.

Dur­ing my time in South Africa, I met peo­ple from every walk of life. But, regard­less of social class, peo­ple seemed to really respect and wel­come oth­ers. A few other stu­dents and I spent a day in Philippi, a town­ship in the Cape Town area, doing field research for a project. It was extremely touch­ing and inspir­ing to see peo­ple with close to noth­ing wel­come us into their homes and offer us per­sonal insight into their lives.

South Africa is an amaz­ing coun­try. Although I fell in love with the coun­try, I left with knowl­edge of not only the great parts of South Africa, but knowl­edge of the neg­a­tive aspects. South Africa has one of the largest wealth inequal­i­ties in the world, and the coun­try still strug­gles with issues of race and gen­der. With this com­plete knowl­edge, I now chal­lenge myself and my peers to think about what we can do to change this going for­ward. Learn­ing about Ubuntu has made me real­ize that I need to think more about other peo­ples’ lives rather than just liv­ing my own life in an igno­rant bliss. Help­ing peo­ple less for­tu­nate is more than just some­thing we should do, and more than some­thing that makes us feel bet­ter about our­selves. Help­ing these peo­ple is our responsibility.

 In kinder­garten, we learned about the golden rule: “treat oth­ers the way you’d like to be treated.” Ubuntu speaks to that. We are all the same peo­ple and we are all con­nected. Although we don’t have word like “Ubuntu” in Eng­lish, that doesn’t mean that we can’t emu­late the word in our every day lives.