When you meet someone what’s the first thing you notice about them? Their clothes? Their eyes? The colour of their skin?
The things we notice vary from person to person and are subjective based on our perceptions and historical and social experiences. While it’s not wrong to notice these things, there is something that’s often missing in that interaction. We miss a step.
Before I tell you what it is, it’s time for a history lesson. Let’s go back to the Renaissance. I have a love hate relationship with this time period. I love it because it marked a massive stride in civilization and the start of the modern age. Unfortunately it came with its downside. I’m not talking about the obvious (colonization, genocide of Indigenous peoples and the beginning of race-based slave trade). I’m more referring to a new way of thinking that transformed the world.
This is René Descartes. Frenchman. Founder of Cartesianism. Writer. Influencer of Western Philosophy. Famous Skeptic. Perhaps the most famous thing he wrote was this phrase:
“Je pense, donc je suis”
“I think, therefore I am”
While it might not have been his intention, this simple phrase in an essay has become the hallmark of western philosophy and civilization and began what I consider a revolution in human thinking.
It sparked curiosity and doubt in a world that had just come out the “Dark Ages” – a reference to intellectual darkness and economic regression. With curiosity came exponential technological and intellectual advancement. But with that also came the advancement of individualism. By defining his essential being as mind and mind alone, Descartes, willingly or not, made a rather extreme separation of the mind from the body (and by extension, the physical world).
“I think there for I am” could be extended to mean the mind is complete in itself and does not need anything physical to be what it is. This radical separation of mind and body is termed “Cartesian Dualism”. By making the mind sovereign over everything, there was a shift in perception of world as a living, breathing wonder to something inanimate that can be manipulated, prodded and investigated at will. People began to approach things like trees and rocks as mere objects and eventually that insensitivity was extended to animals and other human beings. Trust developed with beings that looked like us and anything else was approached with a mixture of fear, distrust and false superiority. With advancement in scientific thinking, technology, individualism and cold, hard capitalism, came the downfall of humanity. And the rest was history.
Eventually, in the 20th century, particularly from the 1960’s onward, humans supposedly started to realize that overemphasis of individuality precludes us from connecting with others through community; and that’s just not sustainable. So people started caring about how what they did affected the word around them. Then you had the civil rights movement, people talking about global warming, the rise of vegetarianism and the animal rights movement, and the internationalization of human rights.
But long before the recent realization that there is more to life that the advancement of oneself was an ancient African Philosophy: Ubuntu.
I will preface what comes next by saying I am not an expert on Ubuntu and while I am African, I do not speak on behalf of the people of the Zulu nation from which Ubuntu comes. It is a philosophy that resonates with me and I am merely sharing a concept that has affirmed the way I see the world. The information here was gathered from personal research and what I have been taught about Ubuntu.
I was told this story by a dear friend and role model of mine. Perhaps it’s fact, perhaps it’s fiction. Nonetheless it’s a great story.
An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe, probably the Bantu people in South Africa, found himself surrounded by children most days. One day he decided to play a game akin to an easter egg hunt. He got candy from a nearby town and hid them around a compound. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. Whatever they found, they could keep for themselves. So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the signal was given, all of the children took each other by the hand and found all the hidden candy together. They all finished at the same time, divided up the candy, sat down and enjoyed the candy. When the anthropologist asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded: “Ubuntu! How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?”
That’s Ubuntu, the African philosophy that strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through the recognition of an “other’s” humanity despite their uniqueness and difference.
Ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. Roughly translated it means “humanity towards others”. It takes the Zulu word for the individual person “umuntu” and places them in their social context. The actual word was likely coined at the turn of the 19th century from the traditional Zulu expression, ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which means, “a person is a person through other people” or…
“We are, therefore I am”
In the 90’s, Ubuntu was adapted as an ideology by a post-apartheid South Africa as a vehicle to bring about harmony and cooperation. That was when it became a more mainstream philosophy. Two key proponents of Ubuntu are the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela. Tutu describes Ubuntu as:
The essence of being human. It speaks to the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours.
Interestingly enough, Ubuntu is not merely a South-African concept. It can be seen in other African and Indigenous cultures, for example Nkonsonkonson in West Africa. It’s about coming together as a community for the betterment of all. It’s about understanding that at our very core, we are all human. That’s the thing that is often missing when we meet new people.
When asked “how are you”, Ubuntu says “I am well if you are well”. It’s about compassion, caring for each other’s well being and acknowledging our responsibility to promote individual and societal well being.
Ubuntu teaches us the art of being human and in practice it is simple.
Care about others. See their needs as yours. Feel their joys and sorrows as yours too. In short, it’s the golden rule.
Have Empathy – listen and feel. Try to see situations from a deeper perspective, not just what they seem at face value. Ask why, before reacting. There is always a reason for people’s actions.
Share: Give without expecting anything in return. Not always easy but the more you do it, the more you discover your humanity.
Have Respect for yourself, for your friends, community, elders, other living creatures and the environment.
Imagine a world where…
…people of different races and cultures celebrate each other’s existence and the rich heritage that enable us to learn from one another
…justice was not considered retaliation and / or retribution, but rather a means of healing and wholeness
…people are seen fundamentally as fellow human beings, and where human beings are seen as being in relationship with the entire universe
What a world that would be!
We have forgotten how to be human beings, and we must remember quickly if we are to save the world. Life is an instrument and we have lost the ability to play it. People live but they are not alive. We must use life and play it like an instrument and make beautiful music. – Credo Mutwa
Humanity has moved so far off the mark with this and I think it’s time for a new Cultural Renaissance to get us out of the new Dark Age of Rugged Individualism.
Adapted from “Discovering Ubuntu” by Gbolahan Olarewaju