Embrace ubuntu way of life, work with others

Columnist and Columnist

I recently came across a story of an African tribe called the Xhosa. In this narrative, an anthropologist suggests a game to the children of the tribe.

He placed a basket of fruit near a tree and told them that whomever reached the basket first, would win the fruit.

When it was time for the kids to run, they all joined hands and arrived at the basket simultaneously.

As they were all enjoying their reward, the anthropologist asked them why they all ran together when one child could have had all the fruit. A child replied, “Ubuntu. How can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”

Ubuntu in the Xhosa language means “I am because we are.”

While the authenticity of this illustration may be up for dispute, the concept of ubuntu is very much a reality.

Desmond Tutu in “No Future Without Forgiveness” explains, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours … I am a human because I belong.

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 belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

This perspective employs a collectivist, humanist view that when every individual in a society is treated fairly, that society benefits as well.

Rather than creating sub-group distinctions of those who can quickly reach the fruit and those who cannot, the philosophy of ubuntu suggests that there’s an obligation for everyone to have their fair share of the reward and a responsibility among the children to work together to reach the goal.

Rather than a focus on individual gain and the suppression of others, those embracing ubuntu act charitably and support one another reaching an end desirable to all parties involved.

When a concept like ubuntu is applied to a culture, provisions for all peoples, regardless of economic or social standing, are given. In stark contrast to theories like Social Darwinism, that holds individuals accountable for their own well-being, this theory allows for understanding of the complexities of human life and how interactions among people and groups influence one another.

Much like if one child had the ability to reach the fruit before the others, if an individual in society had greater resources to attain more capital over another, they would leave less goods for more people to struggle over.

When the fruit is shared evenly or capital distributed equally, the needs of everyone are met. Western culture has a term similar to ubuntu: socialism.

If I haven’t lost you at that buzz word, just bear with me a little longer. Socialism isn’t the government imposing what you can and cannot do; it’s not an anthropologist mandating who gets the fruit. Socialism, at its root definition, is an economic system where the means of production are owned collectively by those in society; the children sharing the fruit basket.

The philosophical view, developed by Karl Marx, leaves room for those who do not have the assets for easy economic or social mobility to have a fair chance alongside all people in a society.

Like ubuntu, socialism teaches that, rather than the individual stockpiling wealth, or gorging on fruit, people have an obligation to work with one another toward the betterment of society.

Plenty of academic research supports the idea that collectivist principles have allowed for the development of humanity. An article subtitled “Did Human Evolution Favor Individualists or Altruists?,” explores how human evolution was directly shaped by interaction among groups through a process known as social selection.

Another text, titled “Why Not Socialism?” by G. A. Cohen, argues that the viewpoint is ethically desirable.

To close, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Tutu, “ … you can’t exist as a human being in isolation … You can’t be human all by yourself…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.”

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