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Ubuntu - An African Perspective 1995 - Poem by Margaret Kollmer








Umunto ngumuntu ngabantu. 'A person is a person through other people’. This phrase more than adequately describes the word which we are hearing quite a lot about these days. Ubuntu. Oooh-boohn-tu.

Nonetheless, in researching the word ubuntu and its associated philosophy, it appears to mean a whole lot of different things to different people.

White people think of ubuntu in terms of the bundu - at the back of beyond. Others, that it is just another name for Bantu. Still others think it is perhaps something you eat, like one of those typically African veggies - marog.

Even some African people seem a little vague at times; suggesting that it is a being 'nice' to people sort of thing. They are quite right of course, but a closer definition would perhaps be 'African humanisation.'

Dr Credo Mutwa, the well known sangoma, anthropologist and humanist describes ubuntu as the 'value system, central to the traditional African way of life' and as such is the true essence of living. Dr Mutwa stresses that the word 'traditional' holds the key in establishing the intrinsic lifestyle of ubuntu.

Unfortunately, African society appears to have lost track of its essential values in many ways, due to years of dehumanisation, separation of families by enforced removals to different areas, towns and even countries. The family unit as it was known under the traditional system was destroyed thus diminishing the communal way of life which was integral to the African value system.

Ubuntu decrees that each person, as a single entity, is entitled to every vestige of respect and honour just as this extends, collectively, to the family as well. Not only the immediate family but also that of the extended family. So 'extended' in fact, that the African sees the entire human race as extended family.

Apartheid institutionalised the devaluation and break-up of this traditional family system because once having ‘escaped’ the bonds of ubuntu, young people desperately turned to defying the law in order to call attention to their plight. But, once having had a taste of doing things foreign to their culture which attained some of their long perceived dreams, ubuntu lost its shine and gradually tainted the youngsters into believing that defiance if nothing else would help them achieve their aim.

The System encouraged this violence for its own nefarious reasons, little realising that the breaking up of the African home and subsequent loss of ubuntu would amount to an ever increasing lack of respect towards all people in the country. After years of African emotional and physical brutalisation, the System did an about turn, leaving both White and Black cultures shallow and bereft of regard and respect for each other’s moral and value systems of the past.

In earlier times, ubuntu knew little of orphans, street children, widows or other 'odds and ends' of humanity. Everyone cared for each other. Selfishness in the African was unknown and SHARING was a way of life, deeply ingrained over centuries.

Christianity, in its definition of 'followers of Christ' ought to have meant and to mean the same thing as ubuntu and if we, as Christians believe this to be so then we, as a people, have much to learn from the traditional African culture of ubuntu.

Ubuntu, in broad terms, embraces respect for life. 'You are a child of the Universe, ' says Desiderata. Your life. My life. Ubuntu honours the child and, this is never more evident than the manner in which African culture regards the child.

Observe how President Mandela greets a child. Compare his whole demeanour with that of the Queen who takes obeisance as her right.
An outstretched gloved hand and a smile whereas Mandela leans forward and extends HIS WHOLE BEING towards the child, perhaps touching its head, in a gesture of far-reaching respect. He does not see the child as the child in the ‘now’ of its existence. He sees the child as a figurehead of both its and the nation’s future and thus deserving of the ultimate respect.

Ubuntu doesn’t stop with the child. It extends towards all forms of life; animals, plants, the sun, the moon and the stars. Ubuntu takes care of everything. Ubuntu tells us that whatever I want done to me so must I do for you. Before I feed myself I must feed you. Before I clothe myself I must clothe you. Ubuntu knows no limitations and embraces the whole spectrum of stranger, friend or foe.

During the Boer War before he left the scene of carnage, the Black man would slit the stomach of both compatriot and enemy alike. Not, as some would think in any act of violence but in order that 'the spirit of the dead man be set free.'

Somehow, recognition of this supreme act of kindness seems to have been missed along the way. Would the many years of misunderstanding between all of us ever have reached such gargantuan proportions if perhaps our Black brothers had explained to us their philosophy of ubuntu. Or, perhaps, had we been sufficiently interested to have made it our business to enquire as to why they had performed this act. Instead, the release of the dead man’s spirit has been gravely misunderstood by generations who branded their counterparts savages. Painfully evident in this example is humanity’s lack of understanding the importance of communication.

Worst affected by the dimishing of the traditional system of ubuntu are the African youth, who have been deprived of their true heritage. Some have never known what it is to share; to consider anyone but themselves first. Grandparents have had reason to despair, parents to weep as they have borne witness to the casual dismissal of the old values whilst a rampant youth marches relentlessly on, demanding what they see as their long-awaited and long-deprived-of rights. Their entitlement.

There is little ubuntu in their attitude. Through circumstance they have never been people who are people through their relationship with other members of humanity. They have become automatons in the smash and grab 'I want' and 'I want it now' generation. How are they ever going to bring ubuntu to their own children? Are all future generations to be deprived of their birthright or will education rekindle in them the ethics and morals of their parents and once respected ancestors?

Now that we are more aware of the African system of ubuntu, dare we hope that this gentle and caring value system can be re-initiated and instilled into future generations of ALL the cultures of this new rainbow nation of ours, so that in time we will be able to share and re-define our own value systems under the same umbrella of ubuntu and thus become the other part of the whole.

Will our African brothers and sisters, in turn, be prepared to make allowances for all our years of ignorance and denial and help to coax us both gently and firmly into the future of a common, shared heritage? If right was right, how then, could we have been so wrong?


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Poems About Family

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