Ubuntu: The Essence of Being Human


Donald WrightThis guest post comes to us from Donald R. Wright, a licensed professional engineer in Texas and owner of an engineering consulting firm in Houston. Married and father to one daughter, Mr. Wright is author of the book The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go.

“No man is an island.”
“A rising tide lifts all boats.”
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
“I am my brother’s keeper.”
“Together we stand, divided we fall.”
“One for all and all for one.”

Above are a few popular phrases that imply a sense of community-centered principles rather than focusing on individual accomplishments. Our culture overwhelms us with individualism. The natural rights of individuals must be maintained and their abilities must be allowed to flourish. But can a human experience life without some influence from another human? In our contemporary society, how often does a person accomplish anything without some involvement from another human?

Africa is the source of humankind and civilization. The Pyramids in Egypt are testaments to early science, mathematics, architecture, and engineering. So it is with tremendous joy to write briefly about an African word that when adapted throughout our universe could be transformative regarding human relationships.

Ubuntu is a traditional African philosophy that binds us in each other’s humanity. (For a video presentation, click here.) The word originated in the Bantu languages of southern Africa. It has as its core meaning, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It promotes caring, sharing, and cooperation amongst individuals while working for the good of the whole. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes 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 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.” Nelson Mandela offers: “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is, are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” This concept goes beyond charitable contributions and community volunteerism. It takes on a definition and philosophy of being and existence that permeates the community. It redefines the phrase “There is no I in TEAM.”

The Boston Celtics were guided by the mantra of ubuntu to win the NBA Championship in 2008. The head coach, Doc Rivers, embraced and shared the concept during the start of training camp for that upcoming season, and the team lived up to its ideals. The addition of two Hall of Fame-caliber players was significant, but ubuntu was the adhesive that sustained the relationship between the players, coaches, and the team objective. For a video of an interview with Rivers explaining the concept, click here.

Celebrating an NBA championship is trivial compared to human conditions such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, chronic illness and disease, and drug addiction. Our value system is distorted when we parade a group of highly paid athletes and coaches down Main Street amidst the cheers of thousands when one block over, there are people hoping to survive another night sleeping in a cardboard tent. What about the cheers for the homeless shelter on the next street trying to accommodate one more person with a meal and a cot for the evening? Remember the homeless and the homeless shelters during the next parade of champions as you litter the area with confetti.

Continuing in the area of sports, the message of ubuntu is lost when teamwork is emphasized in football but yet a Heisman Trophy is awarded to the so-called “best player” at the college level. This applies to all team sports in which a most valuable player (MVP) is selected. Why is there such a need to single out an individual for the “best” award knowing that there are many others assisting and contributing to the team’s success? Can the quarterback do his job if the linemen don’t do theirs? 

Let’s not think that ubuntu is a magical potion that will guarantee success or a championship for a sports team. The magic is in the simplicity of just plain caring and wanting the best for each other. Understand and reject those feelings and systems that promote selfishness.

I choose ubuntu over capitalism; cooperation and community instead of competition, profits, greed, and individualism. To embrace ubuntu, you must be willing to examine and critique capitalism and all of its underlining subsystems disguised as benefits. You must be willing to displace all causes of human suffering that are within human control. Hurricanes may be beyond our capabilities to prevent, but we can respond immediately after the devastation. How long shall we look the other way, toward our own consumerism and accumulation of wealth, while our fellow human beings suffer? Embracing ubuntu can transform our community, town, state, country, and the world. Imagine a world without the selfish motives of oppression, exploitation, and racism. Imagine and choose ubuntu to be an instrument for the better world we so desperately need.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller