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Are You Ubuntu?

April 9, 2018 by

My husband, Dan, and I are part of Breaking the Cycle, a conflict-resolution program for schools that promotes forgiveness and non-violence; Dan is a one of the program’s regular speakers. Recently, we participated in a Peace Conference at a London high school for their year eleven (tenth grade) students. The theme of the conference was ubuntu, an African philosophy of interdependence: “I am because we are.” The aim was to encourage the students (mostly of African descent) that they are a vital part of the London community. But I came away touched and challenged by the message that God wants us to realize that we need one another.

The host of the conference gave some examples to help us understand the concept. Ubuntu is about sisterhood and brotherhood. When you struggle, the ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters. Ubuntu: we are all part of the human family. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.

The host told us about an anthropologist who visited an African village and proposed a game to the village children. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the children that they should race to the tree and whoever got there first would win the sweet fruits. When he gave them the signal to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat in a circle enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they chose to run as a group, one child said: “Ubuntu! How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”

This should not be a new idea for most of us. My capitalist mentality was shaken to the core years ago when I realized that Jesus’ message is “others first,” and again when I joined a Christian community where we share all things in common. Still, most days, I do a sorry job of giving and sharing joyfully.

When the high school students were asked how they could be more ubuntu, they thought of sharing their snack food at break or taking care of the neighbor’s kids, and I thought of how I could be more ubuntu in my community. Perhaps I could remember that when I clean the communal bathrooms, others get to use a clean facility. When I help to prepare a communal meal, others are nourished. It’s not glamorous; it’s a nitty-gritty, we’re-in-this-together philosophy. But because we are together, we are not lonely, hungry, or forsaken.

My capitalist mentality was shaken to the core years ago when I realized that Jesus’ message is “others first.”

After the conference, my husband and I walked through the streets of North London. We passed under a bridge where several homeless people were sleeping rough, and I thought about ubuntu. I thought about interdependence. I thought about the children who held hands and ran together to share the fruit. I was not walking through an African village; I was walking through a Western capital where some have plenty while others have nothing but each of us pretends to be coping. Joy and happiness often evade us because we haven’t yet grasped God’s design for humanity: we need each other. But the answer lies in plain view. Jesus said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25). Ubuntu!

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