Ubuntu, healing, and elections

(This blog was originally published on the  Huffington Post, Oct 5, 2010)

 Years ago, I visited my daughter Rasa at a wildlife camp about 10 miles south of Nairobi, Kenya, where she was studying wildlife management. Rasa’s three months at the camp, closely connected as she was to nature, transformed this beautiful strong young woman, and I was no less affected by my own brief experience there. There is something inexplicable about East Africa: its endless skies dotted with puffs of clouds that seem within arms reach; the smell of dry brush on the savannah; the billowing dust on rutted dirt roads; the screams of a hyrax; the way the sun, cartoon-like, suddenly pops up at dawn and as quickly drops down at the same time every evening.

 Africa gets in your blood. Its rhythm stirs you out of a deep slumber, awakening you to our profound connection to Nature and her cycles. In Africa, you feel part of a web that has no weavers, part of the intricate interconnectedness of life. Instinctively you sense where human life began. I was talking to a Kenyan who worked at the camp about the beauty of his country. He said to me, “We have a saying here. ‘I am because we are.’”

 That phrase stuck with me. I later discovered there is a term for it—ubuntu. Desmond Tutu wrote about it in his book No Future without Forgiveness. This is what he wrote:

 “Ubuntu… speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’… Then you are generous, hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.’ 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, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

 The great leaders of the twenty-first century will have ubuntu. Leaders with ubuntu recognize their interconnectedness and how their humanity is inextricably bound to others—if others are diminished so are they, if others fail, so do they.  They take pleasure from other people’s success knowing that their success is everyone’s success. At some core level we all know our ultimate dependence on one another:  we don’t stand alone, nor do we fall alone. When we accept our interdependence and recognize we are part of a greater whole, then it is in our interest to be generous, cooperative, and caring toward each other. When ubuntu guides leaders, they realize that we are more alike than we are different. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you see yourself in others, then whom can you harm?”

 And yet many organizational practices deny this reality and reflect a blindness to seeing this interconnected and interdependent world. We’ve watched as corporations frantically merged, to become ever mightier in the global marketplace, or downsized, to shed large portions of their workforce, all with little consideration of the communities and bonds of trust that they ruptured in the process. The global economic melt down, initiated by avaricious and risky practices on Wall Street,  exposed a stunning lack of appreciation for how profoundly the global economy is interconnected, and the devastating  impact, like a tsunami, it had, washing over millions of lives.

There are, however, leaders who have ubuntu. Leaders connected to ubuntu use their power to heal, restoring and nurturing a fragile web of human connection. Chile’s former President Michelle Bachelet and Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf embraced their feminine virtues to heal their countries as they emerged from the heartbreak of tyranny and strife. Sirleaf, who favors the nickname Ma Ellen, compares Liberia to a sick child in need of a loving mother’s tender care. Former President Bachelet sought to heal her society and reconcile the Chilean military with the victims of its rule.

These women heal their countries from a place of experience since both women had suffered for their political beliefs. Sirleaf served two years in prison and narrowly escaped rape and execution under the dictator Samuel Doe. Bachelet survived jail, torture, and exile under dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Her father died in jail after he was tortured. These women didn’t turn their hurts into revenge but transformed them into an opportunity to heal.

As the U.S. election season comes upon us with the bombardment of sound bites, let’s listen for whose leadership is guided by ubuntu. Who inspires us, eliciting from us our highest capabilities? Who uses their power of compassion and empathy to dispel fears, rather than induce fears and use them to divide us? Who focuses on the “between,” the quality of how people interact with one another, and stress and model the importance of respecting each other, of working together, of considering the greater good in the choices we make? Who encourages social responsibility that pays attention to how words and behaviors might affect others? Who are the bridge builders, collaborators, connectors? Who leads from a knowing that “I am because we are?”

 These qualities of ubuntu are not the attributes we generally associate with leaders, but they are what we need in our future leaders. As Mother Theresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We need leaders who can remind us.


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9 Responses to “Ubuntu, healing, and elections”

  1. Bill Klein says:

    I love Nairobi, it’s such a diverse and exciting city & very trendy in places, too – a fine example of an African city !

  2. I was born and bred in kenya in 50s .just done a blog …first time about retiring up north of thika nearer embu where my wife is from …used to live in Meru went school in nairobi…it is most varied country you could possibly come across.. you cannot generalise …

  3. Eileen Goldberg says:

    Nairobi, is beautiful. There are differing attitudes to it though. The lake has a sailing club which is mostly full of people who come down from Nairobi at weekends. Some of the people who live around the lake (I’m talking wazungu (whites)) don’t really like the sailing club though. The sailing club is up on a hill and they sailing in the cresent of the lake (Crater Lake, I think it’s called). It is safe (ish) to swim where the club is and the setting is just great. We stayed at the club as we were with a friend who is a member and if you’ve got one of those it is definately worth it. We camped, but there are bandas there, although they are a little unloved.

  4. Kelly Weiss says:

    Nairobi is beautiful but the people are ugly. Its is infected with the malady of tribalism to an unprecedented extent and it raises many questions.

  5. Elaine Pritchard says:

    Ubuntu is also a sweet operating system!

    • I must admit, I find it unfortunate to use such a powerful word that describes humanity in the interest of naming an operating system, no matter how sweet it is.

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