Umuntu ngaumntu ngabantu
During training we would often hear that life in South Africa was unique because of a concept fundamental to its culture: Ubuntu. In Nguni languages (isiZulu, siSwati, isiXhosa, isiNdebele) this is most often expressed through the adage “Umuntu ngaumntu ngabantu” – A person is a person through other persons”. We were told that because of Ubuntu there is a closer sense of community and unity then elsewhere. Ubuntu is commonly explained as similar to the Golden Rule: “Love thy neighbor as they self”. But even if there is some overlap in the core sentiments invoked by both Ubuntu and the Golden Rule, there are also some key differences; which make translating the ideas between cultures difficult. Most importantly, embedded in the Golden Rule is a sense of “I”, and in fact that individualism is found throughout western thought – epitomized by René Descartes “I think, therefore I am”. While embedded in the idea of Ubuntu is community and unity.
If you followed the link to the Wikipedia article on Ubuntu you saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition of the Ubuntu philosophy:
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.
As an American living among South African culture it’s often difficult to see the ideas of Ubuntu in daily life here. I’ve often participated in conversations with other volunteers centered around the idea that Ubuntu is dead. Perhaps the only times we are able to see it is at weddings, funerals and cultural events where everyone is invited and often times a cow or two is slaughtered. But these are big important events, when looking for Ubuntu in daily actions it’s elusive at best. Certainly in most aspects of the education system, the political system and the way children are treated and raised it’s nonexistent. Perhaps the the culture norm that bothers me, as well as other volunteers, the most is the casual way trash is discarded wherever one may be. If a sense of community and interconnectedness of all people is so important to the concept of Ubuntu why do people just drop plastic bags as they walk, unwrap a candy and let the wrapper fall to the ground where they stand, and throw coke bottles out the window. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a snack or drink on a taxi and the person next to the window offered to through it out for me! Or the weird looks I get when I’m handed a coke can to through out the window and instead put it in my bag to place in a trash can. As American’s we take all these things to mean that Ubuntu is dead, but I think this sentiment comes our different cultural backgrounds. And every now and then an aspect of Ubuntu that we can relate to our understanding of the Golden Rule seeps through.
This blog post is really about one of those times.
Last week as I was biking to a school my chain locked up on the way down a hill. I’d never seen a bike chain get stuck like this one; somehow 5 chain links had got caught between the smallest and middle gears in the front. I flipped the bike over and tried pulling them out, which only served to get my hands dirty. I next tried to use some near by rocks to hammer the chain outwith out much luck. I’d been working on this for maybe a minute and a half before someone asked what was wrong. When I explained she stopped someone going someone going in the opposite direction and told him what was wrong. He immediately turned around and told me to follow him to his house, which was about a block away. There with the help of a screw drive and hammer we proceeded to unlock the chain (and luckly this hasn’t reoccurred). I thanked him for all his help and was about to jump on the bike and continue to school, but he insisted on taking me back to the sink and having me throughly scrub my hands. I’m pretty sure my attempts to unlock the chain with out real tools would have failed and forced me to walk back home, but thankfully I didn’t have to.
I think this is an important example of why Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment. I can’t help but think a similar situation would have played out if this had happened not after I’d been biking around the township for over a year, but in my first month here. I’m sure someone would have helped me eventually, but I doubt it would have been that fast. Having lived here for the last 15 months I am now part of the community and that has certain benefits. Maybe to much sometimes, because I also can’t help but wonder how fast someone would have stopped to help if it wasn’t “that weird umlungu American that lives in the township” and just your average person on a bike. But I can never know, for I can only experience life here being treated a 23 year old American and never as someone who was born and raised here. But I’d like to think the fact that I’m the only white person living in the township had little to do with the help I got, and that the same would have been extended to anyone.
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 17th, 2010 at 6:43 pm and is filed under Peace Corps SA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.