Ubuntu: I am because we are

In this time of isolation it is too easy to lose a sense of oneself, and searching for my own identity like many of us are in this ever-progressing world, I encountered the Zulu phrase ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ or ‘A person is a person through other persons’. Marred by our history of individualism, our little island seemed to have lost a sense of community; a sense of ourselves in relation to each other. Always looking forward and never to the side, making decisions that might benefit ourselves as opposed to our community (or the world) as a whole. But the pandemic has shown otherwise. It has shown that through struggle and strife we can hold together.


Countless times I have called up a friend to sustain myself through these cold months. Not only to talk, but to listen, to just be in a space with another person and know that I am and they are. Even the awkward silences I cherished. Making trips to the shop or just out walking, to see a stranger and smile if only with our eyes – every interaction steadied me, reaffirmed that I still belonged and had purpose even if the world was standing still. It need – not needn’t – be mentioned the tireless hours put in by our nurses and doctors, and supermarket and post office staff, among many more, who have put themselves in danger for the safety and benefit of all others. 


Our world can often feel like it is being torn in two. Looking towards the United States where black, indigenous, and people of colour are being persecuted, to the capitol hill riot that attempted to wrestle control of the presidency. The South American rainforest is burning and Brazil is devastated by increasing cases of Covid, all while the president continues to say all is well.


Nompumelelo Mungi Ngomane, grand daughter of Nobel peace prize winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu and author of Everyday Ubuntu, expresses the importance of community and identity. She writes how Ubuntu is the belief in a universal human bond: I am only because you are.


Isolation from others can be extremely difficult on the mind. Ngomane highlights this by stating there is a reason that solitary confinement is one of the highest punishments of all, and while isolation in our own homes is not equal to solitary confinement, it is still something that many of us have endured. To not speak to another human being for extended amounts of time, to only have yourself as company, can cause depression and dissociation to slowly creep in. The self can begin to feel less.


I guess what I’m trying to say here is that we should look back on these past 12 months and ask who was it that helped us through this difficult time. It could be a friend or relative, a kind samaritan, a far away contact from distant lands, or even just a stranger posting on the internet. I would definitely put nature in there, too. Whoever they were, a person of like or unlike, they were still part of ‘your’ world. Without them, would you still be who you are? Can we carry this sense of Ubuntu into the post-pandemic world?


Source: Everyday Ubuntu by Nompumelelo Mungi Ngomane. I recommend it! 


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