In the 1970s, I participated in a student uprising with many others and we confronted our complicity in our oppression. We reclaimed our humanity, our culture, including our African names and languages. Previously, we had accepted the standards set by our oppressors—they decided what was of value and what was not. As activists, we rejected being called Non-Whites, Non-Europeans and identified as black and proud.
The 1976 Soweto Uprising by black high school students was the spark that led to a mass democratic movement that ultimately liberated us from apartheid in 1994. The dawn of democracy offered both black and white South Africans an opportunity to heal the wounds of racism manifest in inferiority and superiority complexes. While the offer has yet to be accepted on a wider scale, the embers of that spark still smoulder.
Moments of existential crisis bear within them the ability to dream and imagine new possibilities. They contain the opportunity to see beyond the self-imposed bounds of what is possible and embrace a new horizon. COVID-19 has revealed a space where the human community can go beyond our comfort zones and reduce the risks we face together. The impact of behavioural change on the scale we have seen the last few months is shocking to many, but this shift reflects the untapped capacity of human beings to change in response to an existential threat.
The extent of our behavioural change was about more than personal survival like wearing protective masks and gloves. But it includes unleashing a reservoir of compassion and reaching out to those around us in distress, in need of food, care, and protection. The “we are in this together” sentiment was widely shared, especially in the early days and weeks of the pandemic. We showed up with the best face of humanity: generosity and solidarity.
I suggest that as we draw from the well of generosity and solidarity within us, we accept an invitation to reclaim the essence of our ‘humanness.’ This essence lies deep in the souls of each living human being. Kofi Opoku, an African scholar descendant of the Akan people of Ghana and elder, expresses this more eloquently:
The concept of human beingness, or the essence of being human, termed Umbuntu in the Bantu languages of Africa, is central to African cultures and religious traditions. It is the capacity in African culture to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony, and humanity in the interests of building and maintaining community.
Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, another African scholar of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, quoted by Opoku, elaborates further to show how this concept finds resonance in the wisdom of other cultures across the globe:
Bumuntu is the African vision of a refined gentle person, a holy person, a saint, a shuntzu, a person of ado, a person of Buddha-nature, an embodiment of Brahman, a genuine human being. The man or woman of Bumuntu is characterized by self-respect and respect for other human beings. Moreover, he/she respects all life in the universe. He/she sees his/her dignity as inscribed in a triple relationship, with the transcendent beings (God, ancestors, spirits) with all other human beings, and with the natural world (flora and fauna). Bumuntu is the embodiment of all virtues, especially the virtues of hospitality and solidarity.
These concepts of what it means to be human are not confined to African cultural and religious traditions. They are shared across the globe. Indigenous peoples in India, East Asian region, Pacific Islands, and the Americas have an understanding of much of the same core essence in their worldviews. This should not be surprising given the common origins of humanity and the shared heritage of the mother continent of Africa. At the same time, African religious wisdom does not claim to be the only and ultimate truth but remains open to other impulses. As the Shona proverb goes: Truth is like a baobab tree, one person’s arms cannot embrace it. This openness is a sign of humility that encourages conversations across the world we inhabit as a human community.
The power of the concept of Ubuntu/Bumuntu/Iwa (Yoruba) and Suban (Akan) is the way it is seamlessly integrated into a way of life. Conversations and social engagements across generations are opportunities to shape the personal characters of children and adults; they reflect the values of Ubuntu as a way of life. I was blessed to grow up in a large extended family in rural Limpopo Province of South Africa. It took the whole village to raise us as children and to understand what it means to be a person reflecting these values.
We were compelled to consciously shape our character and measure our behaviours against the gold standard of human beingness. Good behaviour was reinforced by public pronouncements by the elders: "this kind of behaviour shows that one is a real person.” Bad behaviours toward others and other forms of life—animals or plants—was sanctioned through public reprimand: “a real person does not do this sort of thing.” Adults reinforced good, responsible behaviours by modelling these actions and through nurturing an acute awareness of the expectations of our families and communities about what behaviour met the gold standard of Ubuntu.
The core of the African concept of Ubuntu is that one cannot be a complete human being without the reciprocal affirmation of other human beings—umntu ngumtu ngabantu. The Akan of Ghana would say: onipa na oma onipa ye onipa: it is a human being who makes another person a human being.
Beliefs and Value Systems Inspired by Ubuntu/Iwa/Suban Distilled:
The often quoted “I am because you are” is pregnant with the profound meaning of the generative essence of being human:
· We are endowed with a divine spark that never dies because it is connected to the source of all life. “The dead are never dead.” Our ancestors are forever part of us.
· Humans are social beings. We are wired to be with others, to nurture and shape who we are, and to make sense of our world with one another.
· Our personalities are shaped by what those close to us affirm or sanction. We are whole and endowed with the potential for right and wrong. We are choice-making beings who are socialized to seek what is right.
· We have the capacity to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, self-respect, and respect for others inherent in us that defines our human beingness.
· Harmonious relations within family, community, and society are expressions of character beyond an individual person. The individual is both shaped by and shapes relationships with others to sustain life beyond the self. This is the expansive aspect of the “I am because you are.”
· Our human connectedness goes beyond present relationships. We are inextricably related to our ancestors, who continue to live in present generations as guiding spirits. We stand as bridges to future generations who may still be carried as seeds in our bodies or are children born into this unending web of intergenerational connectedness.
· The interconnectedness of all life makes our being possible and demands we contribute to its sustainability. African people are totemic in that they affirm their connections to nature by identifying with an animal and/or a plant that best reflects our clan identities. For example, the Ramphele’s are Bakwena, Kwena (crocodile) is our totem animal. We also have the willow tree as our totem tree. Our clan’s history is associated with water and crossing rivers with the help of our totem animal and tree.
· We have an ecological commitment to conserve and enrich. Our capacity to empathize is the core of our being and essential for the sustenance of life itself. The intimate totemic relationships with plants and animals reinforce our reverence for nature of which we are a part.
What Contributions Can the Ubuntu Value System Make to the Dream of a Planetary Community?
The multiple planetary emergencies upon us today are reflections of our deviant behaviours as a human community. We have strayed from Ubuntu/Suban/Iwa. We have fallen short of the expectations of the Ubuntu values in our management and use of nature's resources; hence the planetary emergencies are upon us. Our conflict-ridden social relationships and exploitative approaches diverge from the values that embody self-respect and respect for all life in the universe. We have severed the inextricable links and interdependence between ourselves, others in the human community, and the whole of nature.
The question we face now is: having glimpsed the greatness of our inner capability to return to the source of our being, are we ready to reimagine our relationships as humans with all life on Mother Earth? Could we dare to dream ourselves into a Planetary Community that can live in harmony as interconnected and interdependent beings?
We must begin by confronting the glaring contradiction presented by an African continent that does not model the beauty of this amazing concept of human beingness in its political, social, and economic relationships. Given the richness of its heritage, why is there a rupture between Ubuntu/Iwa/Suban values and the current state in many Africa societies?
Africa’s story is an evolution of traumatic ruptures: slavery, colonial conquest, and post-colonial exploitative governance and socio-economic systems. Each one of these manifold ruptures used dehumanization to break the will of its victims. Current neuroscience tells us that of all the forms of intergenerational traumas, humiliation has the most devastating impact. Africa’s humiliation by racist conquerors and their missionary handmaidens devalued its culture and heritage. These efforts obscured our inheritance of God given black beauty. Racism persists to date and justifies colour-coded inequity across the globe only adding salt to these festering wounds.
Martha Cabrera is a psychologist who worked in her native Nicaragua in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in the 1990s. She confronted the inability of the Nicaraguan people to rebuild their lives after the protracted war of independence against the US backed brutal regime. After intensive conversations with people on the ground she came to the following conclusion:
Trauma and pain afflict not only individuals. When they become widespread and ongoing, they affect entire communities and even the country as a whole… the implications are serious for people’s health, the resilience of the country’s social fabric, the success of development schemes, and the hope of future generations.
As a human community, we have seriously underestimated the impact of multiple intergenerational traumas on people. Especially those whose worldview rests so heavily on the assumption that our humanity is authenticated in its affirmation by other people. The systemic denial of African humanity, that was structured into the process of colonial conquest combined with slavery across the continent, has devastated the very foundations of African traditional belief systems. It severed the links Africans believe are inextricable between people, simply because they are part of our shared humanity.
To add insult to injury colonial conquerors denied the validity of the African religious belief systems that affirm the presence of the divine in all living beings. The replacement of these values and this way of life with a god was the ultimate cultural genocide. Africans underwent a radical change of culture and language; they not only lost their land and their dignity, but also the anchors of their belief systems. Opuku reminds us of the wisdom of our ancestors that: “A person who is dressed in other people’s clothes is naked, and a person who is fed on other people’s food is always hungry.”
Africa, like many regions in the world where Christianity holds sway has allowed itself to be dressed in other people’s clothes, embraced others’ languages as the official mediums of communication, and even changed indigenous names to accommodate those acceptable to the gods of conquerors. Africans eat foreign foods that will never satisfy their hunger. Africa has yet to express itself fully as a contributing member of the community of nations. It has yet to bring its rich heritage of Ubuntu/Suban into the circle of ideas of the world community and give shape to global culture.
My own country of South Africa remains a deeply wounded society. Its frayed social fabric is reflected in high levels of interpersonal, domestic abuse of women and children and abuse of power and public resources at the national governance level. Our human rights-based Constitution with Ubuntu as the core principle has yet to translate into our post-1994 society’s way of life. We are missing the political will to mobilize society. We must commit public and private sector investments toward healing narratives and practices of our centuries-old wounds. Uprooting abuse of power and public resources by successive post-apartheid governments would be a significant indicator of the healing process.
The same applies to most of post-colonial Africa. Those working with Aboriginal people across the globe have documented similar manifestations of multiple intergenerational traumas. Indigenous peoples across our world continue to live as marginalized minorities in their own native countries: North and South America, Australia, Canada etc. We need to work together to support the healing of those wounded as part of the process of regenerating our human community and our planet.
What is to be Done?
The first step in any healing process is the acknowledgement of the woundedness that is plaguing us. As I mentioned at the beginning, this was demonstrated in the 1970s during the student uprising. This psychological liberation of the self from the prison of inferiority complexes imposed by other people, who consider themselves superior, is an essential step to freedom of the spirit. As free spirits, we became unstoppable as liberation fighters. The 1976 Soweto Uprising contributed to ending apartheid. These movements offered both black and white South Africans an opportunity for healing the wounds of racism in our country.
The second step requires sustaining self-liberation and transforming the value system of the entire society toward healing. Transforming value systems of societies is hard work. It requires investments in intergenerational conversations and narratives that enable people to externalize their fears and anxieties and to rekindle the life spark essential to living a full life. The logic driving the existing socio-economic system needs to be identified and changed to align with what matters within the value system of Ubuntu. In this worldview, human life and healthy environments that sustain life take centre stage. For Ubuntu, the wellbeing of people and the biosphere are the measures of success in all social endeavours. Our education and healthcare systems, our human settlements and energy systems, our livelihoods and resource systems, should also reflect Ubuntu values. The COVID moment has heightened the urgency of this second step not just for South Africa, not just for the whole African continent, but for the entire world.
The third step is a case for Africa to pay more attention to its ancient history as part of the healing of its wounds. John Henrik Clarke, an African American historian’s words come to mind:
History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be. (...) A people’s relationship to their heritage is the same as that of a mother to a child.”
The teaching of history, not only in Africa but globally, can rob our children of the opportunity of finding themselves on the map of human geography as proud global citizens. African leaders need to invest in transforming the teaching of history to enable African children to take pride in their ancient origins and rich heritage. Transformed African history curriculum opens our eyes to the prowess of African ancestors as reflected in ancient Egyptian civilization. It reclaims Egypt geographically and emotionally to the African continent and its Nubian origins from its imposed identity as a Middle Eastern country. Reconnecting ancient Egyptian history is an essential part of the healing process for the African peoples.
Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese polymath, devoted his life to documenting ancient African history despite huge resistance from some traditional Egyptologists. He concluded that: “Ancient Egypt was a Negro (Black) civilization. The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt.” It is noteworthy, but not surprising that ancient Egyptian culture centred on Maat, with seven principles mirroring Ubuntu: truth, justice, harmony, balance, order, reciprocity, and propriety.
Our COVID moment offers us an opportunity to rediscover who we are as a human community. The slowing down of our frenetic, consumption driven lifestyles has enabled us to look deep into ourselves as a human race. It is a moment that may well go down in history as a turning point for us to come to grips with who we really are as human beings in the larger scheme of our world. This is a necessary process for reclaiming our human beingness.
The resurgence of racism across the globe is an indictment against us as a global community. The science we have accumulated, and practice affirms the Ubuntu notion that there is only one race: the human race. Racism is perpetuated by our willful ignorance to justify a system of colour-coded marginalization of those we “other” to promote avarice and inequity. COVID as an equal opportunity invader has challenged us into understanding that we are part of a single human community that has the capacity to work together for the common good of all people and our planet.
Ubuntu, the recognition that “I am because you are” is the horizon of possibility before us. We need to continue this journey and travel deep into our beings that connects us to one another and those who have gone before. We need to pay due reverence to the spark of life inside each of us and continually raise our consciousness to the sacred light of life within each of us. This sacred light calls us to reflect deeply on our collective responsibility to shape a future worthy of those yet to be born.