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Ubuntu: Applying African Philosophy in Building Community

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You might have much of the world's riches, and you might hold a portion of authority, but if you have no ubuntu, you do not amount to much. -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The philosophy of Ubuntu derives from a Nguni word, ubuntu meaning "the quality of being human." Ubuntu manifests itself through various human acts, clearly visible in social, political, and economic situations, as well as among family. According to sociolinguist Buntu Mfenyana, it "runs through the veins of all Africans, is embodied in the oft-repeated: "Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu" ("A person is a person through other people"). This African proverb reveals a world view that we owe our selfhood to others, that we are first and foremost social beings, that, if you will, no man/woman is an island, or as the African would have it, "One finger cannot pick up a grain." Ubuntu is, at the same time, a deeply personal philosophy that calls on us to mirror our humanity for each other. To the observer, ubuntu can be seen and felt in the spirit of willing participation, unquestioning cooperation, warmth, openness, and personal dignity demonstrated by the indigenous black population. From the cradle, every black child inculcates these qualities so that by the time adulthood is reached, the ubuntu philosophy has become a way of being. The principles of ubuntu must be applied to the new generation of our children to not just pursue the Western dream but to use collective gifts for the community. We can achieve this even in:

  • A world where one government (Philippines) placed the following advertisement in Fortune magazine: "To attract companies like yours ... we have felled mountains, razed jungles, filled swamps, moved rivers, relocated towns . . . all to make it easier for you and your business to do business here."
  • A world where worldwide forests and wildlife are being exterminated to make room for businesses, as well as for 1.3 billion cattle, 1.8 billion sheep and goats, 0.9 billion pigs and 17.2 billion chickens (whose numbers have doubled in the last decade).
  • A world where in 1992, 2 billion people live in countries with an average annual per capita income of $400, 2.6 billion reached $1,600 and only 830 million have an average of $22,000.
  • A world where 40 percent of the world's population lives in poverty and suffers from malnutrition, while people in my country spend 15 billion dollars per year on losing weight, and an extra 22 billion on beauty aids.
  • A world where, in 1992, Michael Jordan earned $20 million to promote Nike shoes -- that's more money in endorsements than the entire annual payroll of all the Indonesian factories that make the shoes.

"What is this world coming to?" is a question on everyone's lips. It is a question unworthy of the church.

Will God's chosen instrument, the African-American church, bring Christ to this coming world through the philosophy of ubuntu?

Will the church direct the minds and hearts of the people of this new world to the truth?

I think it's awful that that word "Christian" is now so greasy from everyone fingering it that it has become slippery and slimy until one hesitates to pick it up.

Global outreaches like Habitat for Humanity and hospices in urban areas such as Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta have understood and practiced the philosophy of Ubuntu. Ministry in a postmodern, pluralistic world must bring together the opposites; it must embrace and bridge a world that is homeless and well-housed, a world that is both dying and healthy, a world that is both fiction and fact, a world that is obese and anorexic at the same time.

A journalist was assigned the Lebanon beat. Walking through the bombed-out streets of Beirut one day, he heard some beautiful music coming from a doorway. He wandered over to where the music was being played and there saw a lad playing a flute. The music was beautiful, but the flute was the weirdest looking instrument he had ever seen. He got as close as he could properly get when the lad stopped playing, smiled and handed him the instrument. It was not until he picked up the flute did the journalist understand. For what this young Lebanese boy had done was to find in some field a discarded rifle, re-bore holes in the barrel of that rifle and transform a gun into a flute.

When those belonging to the African Diasporas begin to practice Ubuntu we can be like that Lebanese boy in making transforming destructive weapons into peaceful instruments. When the church builds bridges that bring the ends together, it makes music. Which will it be? What will the future hold? Instruments of destruction or instruments of healing? Bows or Harps? Guns or Flutes?

When we act upon deeply feeling a sense of being connected to others by our common humanity, when we truly regard self and other as one, when we cherish human dignity, all of our relationships and the level of our behaviors and actions are raised to a higher plane. When we understand and practice Ubuntu we will realize that each has vital role to play, which must be held in balance, no one dominating the other. We must "Break the walls down. Build the body up. Bring the people together."