The ubuntu principles are part of a South African philosophy that people all over the world could use a little more of. Simply put, ubuntu is a Zulu or Xhosa word that means humanity. It’s the belief that “I” cannot be made without “we” and that we are not in competition with one another, but rather we rely on community and togetherness for our own personhood.
Perhaps you’ve heard of ubuntu from the popular fable of an anthropologist in Africa who perfectly illustrated the concept of ubuntu using a simple game. It’s said that the anthropologist wanted to treat the children of a tribe in Africa and decided to buy them a basket of sweets. The anthropologist set the basket next to a tree and told all the children that they could race to the basket and the first person to make it won the treats. The children then grabbed each others’ hands and ran to the basket so they could share their treats together. When the anthropologist asked why, they replied “Ubuntu! How could one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”
True or not, this is a great illustration of ubuntu principles. Rather than strict individualism which is popular in Western societies, or the thinking that you can “claw your way to the top” by competing with others, ubuntu relies on human interdependence and togetherness so no one is left behind. It’s not “I think therefore I am”, it’s “I am because you are.”
Want a more concrete definition? Take this quote from a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ubuntu theologist, Nobel Prize winner, and former chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC):
“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
These are the heart warming stories that we all cling to and the things we need more of in the world. They’re the things that WORK to end inequality and suffering (as proven by the TRC) and yet, we’re conditioned to hold on to what we have in anticipation of a future rainy day while ignoring all the storms coming down over other people’s heads.
Ubuntu does not mean letting others “walk all over you” or putting yourself on the back burner. Perhaps this is where some people tend to jump ship. Empathy, trust, and community are among the most important pillars of ubuntu. It’s about strengthening relationships, making connections, responsibility, togetherness, and sharing acts of kindness. Ubuntu tells us that we can create a more peaceful world by striving for goodness in every moment, for everyone, wherever we are.
Here we are, getting our footing in the new year after nearly a year of living in a global pandemic. Now more than ever people are realizing how important community and togetherness was and is to their mental and physical well-being. We’ve also endured a tumultuous year of political and social justice movements. We’ve experienced a division like never before, both geographically and socially. It’s time to really give these ubuntu principles a try.
When we brighten someone else’s day with a kind word or gesture or put their needs above our own, both parties benefit. We can check in on our friends to remind them that they are not alone and that the community is still strong as well. We can perform balcony concerts or karaoke together to share creativity and light. We can share words of kindness on social media to remind others that connection really is possible, even if through a screen. Most importantly, we can lead an example for our children to become empathetic, resilient, and caring adults. We can even learn from them too.
The spirit of those children who joined hands to share their simple delight of candy were such a powerful metaphor. That candy must have tasted so much sweeter for so much longer because it was tied to a memory of togetherness and friendship – of shared joy. Those are the feelings and skills we want to foster in our young ones through the HAPPÉ program.
HAPPÉ and the ubuntu principles have many different parallels:
HAPPÉ’s Mission I’m Possible challenges encourage kids to find and cherish happy moments, like sharing a smile or kind word with a friend or stranger. They challenge children to make a positive difference in someone’s life and to measure their impact both physically and emotionally for the “giver” and the “receiver”. Our goal is to help children become aware of their own emotions while building empathy and an understanding of the different feelings and walks of life their peers have. Happiness, community, and kindness come first and productivity comes second, not the other way around.
If you want to join in on the HAPPÉ fun, you can sign up for FREE here. Please also consider following us on social media to join our weekly HAPPÉ challenges and share kindness and positivity digitally until we can meet in the classroom again.