'UBUNTU' in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because we are”.’
In the first example, there is the concept of sharing possessions. In the second the sharing goes deeper. It involves sharing power over the possessions. One child did not win then share; they all won control.
It appears then that in South Africa, ubuntu refers to close community ties in a situation where the good of one is the good of all. Barack Obama was referring to this human need for a sense of community in his use of the word to mean ‘ties that bind the human spirit’ and the idea that ‘we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with one another’. This seems to tap into a universal need of all people to belong to a close and caring community.
And unity is especially important in situations where communities are under threat. Communities need inner strength to withstand attack from outsiders. While racial oppression in South Africa led to an enhanced feeling of closeness and kinship, the human species now faces grave dangers from ignorance, superstition, environmental destruction, fanaticism, power mongering, and greed. Today, we continue to have a dire need for ubuntu and unity.
I wanted to find out if there is an English equivalent word to the word ubuntu as used by Obama. There's 'community spirit' — invisible, motivating but not quite the same as ubuntu. The term ‘community spirit’ doesn’t give a sense of oneness in the same way as ubuntu because we belong to lots of communities and our loyalties are divided. In our competitive world, we are set against each other. Community groups compete for lottery grants; schools and colleges compete for students and a high place on the league tables; businesses compete for customers; charities compete for our support; campaign groups compete for our attention and politicians compete for votes. In all of this, there are winners and losers. The concept of the oneness of humanity is lost in the competitive fight. I can feel a sense of unity within communities but not in humanity as a whole. The reality feels like conflict between communities, nations and religions.
There seems to be a problem of scale. I get a sense of fulfilment from helping those who are close to me and the communities I feel are worth giving my time and support to. I feel the ties that bind me to my family and friends. These are the ties of love, kinship and loyalty. However, Obama used the word ubuntu in a whole-of-humanity context, saying that Mandela recognised that “There is a oneness in all humanity” and that "we are all bound together." He was not wrong in this use of the word; according to Wikipedia, the word itself actually means, literally translated ‘human-ness.’ It is ironic that the Zulu word ubuntu has been applied to the whole world, the world outside, the world that threatens the existence of the traditional Zulu communities in which the word originated.
The appeal of all peace makers is to feel the human-ness within ourselves, our immediate families and the communities to which we belong and then apply this same feeling to the whole world. It is an appeal that is made again and again in many different ways. With a Christian background I am most aware of the words of Jesus ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ when asked who is my neighbour, Jesus clarifies saying everybody. It is failure to see ourselves in others — the human-ness of us all — which leads to conflict at all levels from neighbourhood disputes to world wars. Gregory H Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide start with "Stage 1, Classification: The differences between people are not respected. There is a division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’" This typically leads to people perceived as ‘different’ being treated differently and stripped of their human rights and dignity. On all scales, putting one person’s rights above another, one race above another, one nation above another is a recipe for disaster.
The other aspect of ubuntu, ‘Achieving ourselves by sharing with others’ seems to work at a deep and personal level. It would be a good slogan for any appeal for volunteers or funds. A sense of achievement and fulfilment from helping others seems to be a basic human characteristic. We depend on others for our existence. What makes humans so successful is our ability to pass on knowledge, technology and skills; building up from one generation to another. Each generation doesn't have to invent the wheel. As world communication has improved from simple transport to flight, from the telegraph to World Wide Web, the sense that "we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye" becomes more real.
By using and defining the word ubuntu, Obama seemed to be implying that we could view the whole world as one big community to which we all belong and for which our lives can be lived. This feels like a dream but a dream worth working towards. If humanity could develop this sense of responsibility, if the sentiments within ubuntu could touch the majority of people worldwide, it seems that we would have the capacity to aspire to oneness. Actually achieving oneness is another matter. We need to analyse what gets in the way. Competition is built into our societies and genes — in some ways, it is survival of the fittest; even Mandela acknowledged the legitimacy of striving to enrich oneself. The question is what we do with our riches. With the spirit of ubuntu, we use our resources to bring greater fulfilment to the entire community and, by doing so, we further enrich ourselves.
Saint John's Anthem
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Despite Saint John's challenge, it is hard to imagine a community where everything is shared equally. On a world scale, equality is an even more fantastic concept. Everyday, the gulf between rich and poor gets greater and the struggle for resources gets fiercer. Competition in education (and in theory a resultant good job) starts in my country at the age of four! What a stressful and pressured existence we’ve created. So what else stands in the way? War: violent competition between groups. Conflict between individuals and societies starts with competition over dominance, influence, and resources. People stand with a nation or religion and have a cause worth fighting for. They stand up for what they believe in and defend their own. What hope have we for ubuntu?
Yet there are two aspects of ubuntu that were brought home to me this week in a simple way: the joy of sharing and its local and worldwide dimension. Our neighbour, Alan, called round to fix the handle to our front door. Over a cup of tea and a chat we were able to advise and help him to connect up to the World Wide Web. His practical skills helped us to access our home, we were able to help him access information and communication at a world level.
We shared our skills in a local neighbourly way but we can also share our perspective worldwide through the Internet. This is a new way to see ourselves as global citizens able to contribute to international debate, campaigns, and the shared store of all human knowledge in sites like Wikipedia. The word ubuntu itself, possibly first came to general attention outside of South Africa as the name of an operating system. In the computing world, Ubuntu is a specific flavour of the Open Source Linux operating system — for those not familiar, a competitor of windows. Through computer technology, the skills of many worldwide are now contributing to the mass of human knowledge on a huge scale. There seems to be deep, universal human need for a sense of close, local community that has been lost. Maybe that sense of community can be rediscovered and enhanced through global communication and contribution.
Strong leadership requires strong language and Obama knew that. By using a South African word, he was appealing to the South African community he was addressing. By defining the word in the way he did in the speech, giving it a broader meaning, he was tapping into a deep sense of belonging which we all need to feel. By extending this to a sense of belonging to the whole world he included all his audience, a community of world leaders gathered to mark the passing of a great world leader.
Speech by Barack Obama; BBC website 10/12/13
Thought for the day Radio 4 5th Feb 2014- for Gregory H Stanton’s 8 stages of genocide
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust leaflet 2013
Yoism UK forum, The Yorum