I came across Ubuntu in one of my Netflix-binge, “The Playbook” a documentary and profiles on legendary sports coaches as they share the rules they live by to achieve success both in sports and life. For someone living in an era filled with tech-based startups, the word Ubuntu is closely tied to the Linux-based software. However, that isn’t what this writing is going to cover. Ubuntu is a term that means “humanity”, which is often translated as “I am because we are.”
Doc Rivers made this part of the Boston Celtics’ winning philosophy back in the 2007-2008 season (the Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen era) as they won the NBA Championship. Doc Rivers through this philosophy has made a team having trouble adapting with its’ new super team into a legendary one. As I was watching the Netflix documentary, it made me question what it truly was. Honestly, the message was inspiring.
What exactly is Ubuntu?
According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Ubuntu is the essence of being human.” That a solitary human being is a contradiction to its terms. We have to learn from other human beings in how to be human. A person is a person through other people, someone cannot be all they can be unless another is all they can be.
This might be confusing for anyone that reads it, as it did confuse me at first too. But re-reading everything, it made me realize that Ubuntu strikes as a personal identity theory. That as a human being, I wouldn’t be able to learn how to talk without another human being, and I wouldn’t be able to learn how to walk without another human being. This in essence would also mean that I wouldn’t be able to learn how to be humane without another human being teaching me how to be humane.
The current society and concepts of nurturing tend to pit us against each other, such as having a ranking system in school. The current society’s rat race has made us believe that the inhumanity in humans would stab us in the back if we’re ever ahead. A common way of nurturing by comparing your children’s’ achievement to another grows jealousy between people. This sense of jealousy has instead made people feel threaten on the success of others, leading us to our society’s rat race of “survival of the fittest”.
How Ubuntu Differs
Ubuntu offers a different point of view. That you cannot be threatened by another because they are good, because the better they are, the better you are too. In this retrospect, Ubuntu sees humanity not solely in the individual but as a collective. Therefore, when someone does good, humans as a collective becomes better, vice versa. That humans are interdependent with each other and the collectiveness of humanity is what makes people simply, humane.
According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze in his book “Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa“, the core of Ubuntu is summarized as follows: “A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.”
Humans are one yet interdependent to each other in its’ core. It is what Ubuntu stands for. Former President of the United States Barack Obama made a speech on 2018 in Johannesburg, at Nelson Mandela annual Lecture. He said that Nelson Mandela “understood the ties that bind the human spirit.”
“There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu — that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us,” Obama said.
Nelson Mandela once said, “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, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects.”
This example of the concept of Ubuntu shows the exact “oneness”. As a society, looking after one another plays a major role in the success of humanity.
Ubuntu in the Flesh
So how does Ubuntu translates into action for you? Ubuntu includes the interconnectivity of human and groups them up as a collective consciousness in what we’d call humanity. As it may seem big and massive, there’s a lot of little steps that we can take in making humanity into a much better place. The most common one I can think of is perhaps, cleaning up after yourself in a fast-food restaurant. Sometimes, doing small, good actions helps other people’s day better, and that by itself is Ubuntu. That you should always be even-minded in all circumstances, knowing that your action has an effect on the people around you and humanity as a whole.
Ubuntu teaches you that the good deeds of other people help you become a better you, that it adds up to what we’d consider as better humanity. Ubuntu transcends race, culture, and social gaps; it tells you that you are human because we are human. That we are a mirror for another, and they, in turn, mirrors us. Ubuntu teaches you to actively seek good and sees good, and that everybody is in fact human. Ubuntu is the philosophy that tells you, that you excel because you’re in the right place at the right time, while another is at the right place, at the right time as well. Ubuntu is the philosophy that pushes you to move forward together, as one collective humanity.
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