Ubuntu

September 2, 2020

 “I am because you are”.

The term “ubuntu” is a term that originated in South Africa (some say it is Xhosa, others say it is a Nguni Bantu term) that is loosely translated to “I am because you are.” In other words, my humanity is bound up in yours — if you suffer or succeed, I do too.

I first learned of “ubuntu” while traveling around the world with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He spoke often of ubuntu while he shared stories of his struggle during the apartheid, his mentorship of Nelson Mandela, and during his decades of work as a holy man.

But the story of ubuntu that finally made me understand what it truly meant was this: Archbishop Tutu gathered my shipmates and me with tears of joy streaming down his face. He said he had seen us living the spirit of ubuntu even as he was meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi about the atrocities of the world.

He saw us greeting strangers as friends, helping each other, laughing, playing with the children, and donating to the monks and temples looking for nothing in return. His smile as he shared what he saw was full of hope and he told us that our actions and kindness would change the world — and that he knew God was looking down on us and smiling too.

We live in an interconnected world

Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It is the belief that no human can exist in isolation. Even the most isolated among us was born from a connection and a relationship (whether that relationship was long or very brief doesn’t matter). And every part of you developed through a connection with others. You learned to speak from listening to your mother’s voice, you learn to walk by copying your father, and you learned to talk and interact with the world by learning from the humans around you.

Your being exists as it is because of your relationships and interconnection with others. The way you view the world, what you think of as normal or culturally appropriate, and even the language you speak and read, you learned from your connection to people and a society.

Cultural norms exist because of other humans and their interconnected relationships that have built upon each other for decades (or centuries or millennia).

In some cultures, like current Moroccan culture, it is considered very normal for heterosexual males to hold hands in public and give physical affection to their friends. In other cultures, that behavior is outside of the norm and could lead to (sometimes negative) assumptions. In yet other cultures, like Japanese culture, any public physical affection from male or female is not considered normal. All of these “norms” exist because of the interconnection of the people within that society.

However, the internet, cellphones, and fast transportation are now connecting those geographically distant communities and breaking down some of the previously established norms. The internet, cellphones, and rapid transportation connect even the most remote regions of the world allowing now, more than ever, for the spirit of ubuntu to flourish across the world.

I am a believer in the concept of ubuntu and a product of being a world citizen connecting with communities and people all over the world. In fact, I’m Facebook friends with monks in Myanmar, entrepreneurs in Spain, villagers in Ghana, tour guides in New Zealand, and even a chef in France. I connect with others to understand, to learn, and to support humanity wherever it is.

Ubuntu is: ‘self’ as part of a community

It can be difficult to understand the beauty of ubuntu without realizing that the philosophy never asks for the community to come above yourself. Instead, ubuntu thinks of the ‘self’ as a part of the community — one where your success drives the success of the whole.

This also means, that actions should never be taken at the expense of others. Leaving someone behind in a foreign country to fend for themselves is the opposite of ubuntu. But, running ahead to catch the last bus then using that success to ask the driver to wait for your traveling companions is exactly the philosophy of ubuntu.

Ubuntu encourages you to be fully yourself

For me to be my absolute best self and succeed, I need you to be your absolute best self too. You have gifts that I don’t have, and I have gifts that you don’t have — we are complementary and are made better by our connection.

This concept may sound familiar to you like you are the yin to my yang or opposites attract; this part of ubuntu celebrates and recognizes differences while encouraging those difference to complement the whole (society or community). Ubuntu is not about forcing everyone to be the same — it is about empowering you to be fully yourself with your uniqueness celebrated and respected.

A society as a whole needs people who are different. It needs those whose strength is in leadership as well as those whose strength lies in being a good worker. A society needs mothers and caretakers as much as it needs warriors and statesmen; it needs teachers and sanitation workers as well as inventors and storytellers. It takes all of the unique and beautiful skillsets of individuals to be explored and utilized to create the amazing world we know.

Peace between all people, all cultures, and all nations

Although peace is the ultimate goal of the ubuntu philosophy, there is no assumption that it will come easy. Peace doesn’t just happen between people, cultures, or nations— it takes action and effort.

One of the smallest actions with the most profound impact you can take is to be open to learning new things and exploring differing views.

I have seen what a struggle being open-minded can be especially when there is a history of pain behind a long-held belief. When the ship we were on stopped in Vietnam, those who had lived through the Vietnam war had a tough decision to make. Should they venture out into a country where they lost friends, family, or even their own young-adult lives? Or stay where it feels safe and not be confronted with those memories, emotions, and the reality of Vietnam today?

Some refused to get off the ship.

Others took the difficult step of venturing out, visiting memorials and war museums, but they also saw the unforgettable floating markets and the beautiful people living in Vietnam today. They saw lives just like their own and a history of a war that hurt so many of their Vietnamese brethren too. Those that ventured out took the action to recognize the humanity of others who felt so very different from themselves. That bold step was the first in creating a peace among people, cultures, and nations — the very essence of ubuntu.

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Image for post
Archbishop Desmond Tutu a.k.a. “Grandpa Arch” and me (photo by author)


Leana’s an avid world traveler who has been to over 40 countries and will be venturing to her 7th continent in 2022. She believes in ubuntu and that adventures make life worth living. To follow her journey as a plus-sized woman with unquenchable wanderlust as she continues to seek out all that the world has to offer, you can check out The Overweight Adventurer.

1