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The Spirit of Ubuntu

29 July 2010 One Comment

Kim Weichel

Barbara Nussbaum and Kimberly Weichel
South Africa and USA

“To extend the spirit of ubuntu, we need to value peace as an organizing principle and require peacebuilding courses in our schools.”

The African Union designates July 31 as African Women’s Day. This week, then, it is especially fitting to reflect on ubuntu, an African word that embodies so much of what we seek in society today. In the Xhosa and Zulu languages ubuntu means “people are people through other people.” It is the spirit of oneness, unity, and compassion, and expresses itself in a desire to help others and include everyone. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa says, in ubuntu “my humanity is caught up inextricably in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms.” Nelson Mandela explains, “The spirit of ubuntuthat profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings – is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.”

Barbara Nussbaum

The call for our time is to nurture the spirit of ubuntu. In these United States of America, this means building on the spirit and principles our country was founded on – the principles of fairness, equality, justice, freedom and democracy for all. Our Constitution begins with “We the People.”  We entrust our government to govern “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” President Obama said it well in his inauguration speech, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Ubuntu is the spirit of peace – it’s the spirit of respectful win-win – meaning that if a solution doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for me either. Yet it goes beyond Western concepts of me and you to “I evolve and grow because of you and in relation to you.” It refutes the mores of our past decade of “look out for number one,” the competitive motto “it’s about winning,” and the capitalist value of “more is better.” Our ability to be fully alive and fulfilled is integrally linked through our relationship to the actions, perceptions, and attitudes of others. It is the spirit of cooperation in action.

Barack applauds Michelle, International Women's Day, 2010

Ubuntu also calls for cohabitation, which, as Reuel Khosa notes, is not only about living with others harmoniously but also about accommodating other people’s ideas, and “genuinely seeking to understand before proceeding to persuade them.” Ubuntu teaches the value of inclusivity and the search for reciprocal understanding. Ubuntu is a key ingredient for peace as it calls us all to respect the traditions of others and incorporate them into the whole. Ubuntu is a pathway to peace, as it is inclusive and self-critical, reflective and accommodating. So ubuntu invites us (again in Khosa’s words) to “establish harmony in diversity and creativity in community.”

We live in a world of vast differences that can truly enrich our lives. Yet it is important that we learn how to honor these differences, and reduce misunderstandings. Ubuntu reframes a new way of being, through patience, tolerance and respect. When we deepen our relationship with ourselves and others we transform conflict by peaceful and nonviolent means. It is time to end the cycle of utilizing force and the choice to use violence to attempt to resolve conflict.

To extend the spirit of ubuntu, we need to value peace as an organizing principle and require peacebuilding courses in our schools. We need to establish structures of peace in our governments and in society. We stand on a threshold of possibility in a moment of crisis. We have the tools and we know what to do; may we have the wisdom and courage to act in accordance with our better nature. We stand with President Obama as he states unequivocally, “America’s moral example must be the bedrock of our global leadership.” Let us, together expand the spirit of ubuntu everywhere. Yes, we can!

As the African saying goes, “When there is peace in the individual, there is peace in the family. When there is peace in the family, there is peace in the community. When there is peace in the community, there is peace in the nation. When there is peace in the nation, there is peace in the world.”


Kimberly Weichel is a Peace X Peace Board member and the incoming CEO, a social pioneer, an educator, an author, and the director of the Institute for PeaceBuilding. Barbara Nussbaum is an author, coach, and educator based in Franschhoek, South Africa. This essay first appeared as a Peace Journal entry in the Peace X Peace Community.

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One Comments to “The Spirit of Ubuntu”
  1. Janice Butt says:

    Your article inspired me. I have suggested to our Peace and Justice Committee at North Decatur Pres. Church that we adopt Ubuntu as our motto, as it defines our mission in one word.
    Thank you for acquainting me with this word and the concept behind it.

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