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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.