“Over there is a basket of apples,” the teacher tells her students. “Whoever gets there first can have them. Ready? Go!” Something miraculous happens. The children don’t run for it, but take each other’s hands, walk to the basket, and distribute the apples among everyone. One of the children explains, “How can one be happy if everyone else has nothing? Ubuntu”.
This is how the African philosophy of Ubuntu was roughly explained to us. In essence, Ubuntu is about looking after one another and community. It’s about cooperating instead of competing. Once in South Africa, we are eager to learn more and see how this philosophy exists in the daily lives of African communities. We wonder – can we find real-life examples in a country that is plagued by corruption and crime? And if so, what lessons can we learn?
Meeting the Zulus
Deep inside the Imfolozi Game reserve, our guide Mphile shows us the way, literally and figuratively. She guides us through the bush as we hike in a single file behind her. At frequent intervals, she explains the habits of different animals, the function of plants, and the relationships between them. When she talks about the animals, she calls them brothers and sisters.
“Do you know why we often see zebras, impalas, and giraffes together? The animals help each other. Giraffes, with their long necks, are masters of keeping a lookout for predators. In case of danger, they warn the others. Nature is as much survival of the fittest as it is cooperation,” she says. “Ubuntu”. This word also comes up during the meal when she shares what she has just prepared. “Sharing is caring,” she says with a smile.
Mphile is a member of the Zulu community. When we later visit her in her village in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, she explains what Ubuntu means to her. “Humanity”, she says. “I am because I am a part of a community”. In other words, the deep-rooted African philosophy is about sharing and caring and the awareness that we are all connected. “This philosophy is very much alive within the Zulu community,” Mphile says. “We help each other whenever possible. With food, housing, or money. Within the family, of course, but also within the village. I work at the park, but some of my relatives have no job. Unemployment is a big problem in South Africa. I help my relatives by sharing my income.” Mphile adds that “Nowadays, some people are more self-centered, so they don’t practice Ubuntu anymore. It’s a pity because it is a beautiful concept that was passed on to us from our ancestors.”