I recently learned the word “ubuntu,” a South African concept that basically means what makes us human is the humanity we show each other.
Ubuntu honors the statement: I am what I am because of who we all are.
According to Wikipedia, at its most basic, Ubuntu can be translated as “human kindness,” but its meaning in a much larger scope is the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.
Ubuntu became known outside of Africa largely through the writings of Desmond Tutu, a South African leader of the anti-apartheid movement who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
He writes in his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto’; ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”
In 2006, South African journalist Tim Modise interviewed Nelson Mandela and asked him specifically how he defines the concept of Ubuntu.
It’s powerful thinking and transcends the idea of national borders, religious divides and other differences.
Ubuntu reminds me of a story about a corn farmer that I’ve seen reposted dozens of times on Facebook. While I can’t find the original source of the story, the concept relates to Ubuntu in a nice way:
“There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.
“Why sir,” said the farmer, “Didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
So is with our lives… Those who want to live meaningfully and well must help enrich the lives of others, for the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. And those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness, for the welfare of each is bound up with the welfare of all…”
Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.
“It represents a world-view that sees humanity as a web of family, rather than a mass of individuals,” Dr. Frank Lipman writes, who runs a wellness center in New York City. “This philosophy affirms that a person is a person through other people, that we are all related, interdependent and connected to each other.”
I think it’s my new favorite word.