As humans, we too often forget that our actions have a cause and an effect. We forget that we are all connected to the consequences of one another; that what we do – our actions, our words, our feelings, eventually manifest themselves out into the world. We do not realize that our efforts at achieving isolation and independence are in vain, for we cannot escape the decisions and revolutions that affect the world in which we live. Our hands reach out unknowingly, and spread like breath, a soft vapor touching the peripherals of our fellow beings. We forget that to be our best, we must look for the best in each other; that to live in peace, we must strive for harmony inwardly and outwardly. We cannot ignore the lives of those around us.
We must greet one another with Ubuntu.
I remember the day I learned this word. It was a revelation. I was eating lunch across from Mark Mathabane, (maw-tah-bah-knee) held captive by an excruciatingly heartbreaking tale. I could hardly swallow my food as I listened to a story of growing up in poverty, of unendurable suffering, of innocence robbed. This tale was Mark’s childhood. It was life as he knew it, through the eyes of a young boy confronting the hardships of apartheid in South Africa. Confronting thoughts of suicide at the age of 10, facing a future that appeared so bleak and hopeless – digging in garbage heaps for food, never knowing where his next meal would come from. But what he did know, was that despite the weary destitution, Ubuntu held his people together. He guarded his family’s love like a fragile blossom, its tendrils gingerly holding the fragments of his life in order.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains the South African philosophy of Ubuntu as “the essence of being human”,
“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has 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.
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
As Mark told the story of his coming of age, I gained a new appreciation for the meaning of the words family … friends … community; Ubuntu. I could feel, through subtle cracks in the constant strength of his voice, the pain he endured – all the struggles he fought to be here, sitting right in front of me. I realized right then and there, that nothing in my life was to be taken for granted. I realized that everything I am, all that I have, all that I will be, I owe to my roots – my foundation – my family. I saw, in the dark pools of his eyes, that pain and suffering can be overpowered – that man can prevail in the face of oppression, that if he stands beside his fellow man instead of against him, they both are stronger. That to embrace each other with Ubuntu, is the light in the shadow of darkness.
I later read Mark’s autobiography and best seller, Kaffir Boy, followed by his sister’s biography, Miriam’s Song. Both are controversial stories, strong staples in literature curriculum, challenged by narrow-minded parents yearly. Reading his books, particularly Kaffir Boy, deeply moved me. But nothing has struck me with such profound effect as the expression on Mark’s face the day I learned Ubuntu.