Ubuntu: Foundation Of African Societies

ubuntu in African societies silhouette of people standing on mirror during golden hour

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Ubuntu, the philosophical foundation of African societies is usually summed up as communalism. This is the belief that the individual is subsumed into the group, and that the group is more important than the individual. In most cases, this is based on the belief that the individual cannot survive without the group.

That belief is contrary to the idea of survival that fundamentally drives our globalized societies today. Think about it, capitalism, socialism, and communism are all borne of the necessity for humans to live safe (and perhaps decent) lives.

However, that also means they are all based on self-interest. The ways of today’s world are mostly defined by western ideals. The problem is that Western civilization is driven by the notion of “homo homini lupus”. That translates to something like “Man is a wolf to other men”. Yep, kill or be killed.

That belief rationalizes the need to dominate because it supposes that’s the only way one can survive. Thomas Hobbes highlights that belief in De Cive: “Good men must defend themselves by taking to them for a Sanctuary the two daughters of War, Deceipt, and Violence”.

In Ubuntu philosophy, the universe is perceived from a cosmic perspective. This worldview centers on the notion that everything that exists is influenced by a spiritual force. That is what has sustained African societies for thousands of years. That’s also what makes Africans fundamentally spiritual beings.

This philosophy is evident in the way African societies are structured, with a strong emphasis on strong community ties, respect for the elders, matriarchy, and respect for the environment.

What is unique about Ubuntu Philosophy? How does it fundamentally drive African societies? Let’s find out!

What is Ubuntu?

The term “ubuntu” is a compound word comprising the first letters of the words “humanity” and “spirit”. It comes from the Nguni/Bantu languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele).
The name is Central/Southern African, but the concept is found in all African societies.

The African philosophy of Ubuntu attempts to instill within its adherents the idea that people’s existence is meaningful, particularly when one considers the interconnectedness of people and the universe.

From this perspective, Ubuntu suggests that it is not only valuable to be human but that one’s existence has a meaning only if one considers one’s place in the universe.

In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness (not an affiliate link), the Rev. Desmond Tutu captures the spirit of Ubuntu this way: “A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human.”

A Shared Humanity

The Ubuntu philosophy refers to one’s connection with humanity and with the universe. It builds on the understanding that “humanity is a common humanity”, and that there exists a shared humanity that extends beyond the borders of nations or racial lines (I know, racism was never a “thing” in African realities, but I am also writing within the context of our times).

That is how South Africa started its reconciliation journey; by applying the principles of Ubuntu through restorative justice. I have had the chance to speak with Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh about that; check it out.

A person who is part of an organization shares some of the fruits of that organization’s work in the same way that a person is part of a family. Family members care for one another and help and help one another. Therefore, a family becomes a cohesive unit in which each member is cared for in the same way. Each member matters.

Community Building

Ubuntu similarly serves to encourage cohesion among individuals in a given society. One’s existence is only meaningful in the context of his or her relationship with the other members. An individual has social roles and responsibilities that are just as important as his or her personal responsibilities.

Ubuntu asserts that one ‘s worth as a person is not dependent upon his or her wealth or status, and that one’s worth should not depend upon how he or she looks or how he or she behaves. Ubuntu asserts that all human beings are valuable and should be treated with respect.

Ubuntu As The Base Of Matriarchy In African Societies

In African cosmology, the cosmic womb, or maternal body, is considered the source of everything, including people, animals, and plants. It is from this concept of the cosmic womb that, throughout history, there have been matriarchal societies in Africa.

A Holistic Worldview Of Existence

Ubuntu philosophy promotes the idea that people should treat each other with respect and regard each other as members of the same species. This promotes the idea that people should be treated equally.

One of the central characteristics of Ubuntu is that a person’s existence is meaningful. This means that an individual exists as an integral part of the universe and that his or her existence has a purpose beyond mundane considerations.

Mother Of Society

In the African perception of the universe as a cosmic womb, the spirit of Ubuntu translates into the idea of mothering as central to any society.

That is why, in African societies, the woman occupies a central role. She carries life. She gives life. She is the gateway to life.

woman carrying baby on back_ubuntu-in-african-societies
The bedrock of society – A working woman carrying a baby on her back

That is also why women have occupied an important place in African societies for millennia and their participation in the political, economic, and social spheres has been well established. This form of society has been dominant in Africa and its influence can be found in the institutions, beliefs, and social structure of most African societies today.

The basic idea is that people are related to each other and live together not by family or by an individual or private property relations, but by a strong sense of community. This implies that people are equal as members of a society and that they are interdependent rather than independent.

Respect For The Environment

Ubuntu also promotes the idea that the effects of our actions on society should be considered and that people should take responsibility for their actions and the protection of their environments.

Respect For Life

African societies do not make a distinction between the fundamental value of human life and that of other life forms like animals and plants when it comes to the value of life. These societies promote the idea that humans have some responsibility towards the other life forms in their environments.

Sure, we tend to value human life as more important than the lives of other non-human animals. We accept the notion that we are superior, we feel more, and we understand suffering and happiness better than the other animals.

There is arrogance that needs to be tamed in us. We are very good at rationalizing our deeds. We’ve even used religion to say that animals do not have souls. Hell, humans have even used it to enslave and dehumanize other human beings. Even today, we keep living creatures in parks and zoos just to satisfy our “sophistication”.

Ubuntu, however, promotes the idea that people share the responsibility for the safety of their environments and that the well-being of our ecosystems is dependent on the well-being of the people. And the well-being of the people depends on the well-being of their ecosystems.

Ubuntu And The Power Of Memory

Ubuntu teaches African societies that they are part of nature, therefore they have to contribute to it. This is not even about adding anything, it simply means they should not abuse it. They should not harm it or destroy it. That is exactly the basis of African spirituality. That’s the understanding that we are nature in life and in death.

The Senegalese poet Birago Diop summarized it better in his popular poem called Breaths:
“…Those who are dead are never gone:
They are in the Womb of the Woman,
They are in the Child who wanders
And in the Firebrand that blazes.
The Dead are not under the Earth:
They are in the Fire that goes out,
They are in the Grass that weeps,
They are in the Rock that groans,
They are in the Forest, they are in the Abode,
The Dead are not dead…”

It’s still very common to see African people pour water on the ground as a form of libation. That’s part of how we tell our ancestors that we remember them. We know they are among us and they are protecting us. We honor them.

Respect For The Elders

The role and the place of the elders in African societies have been well documented.
They pass along the knowledge from previous generations to the future generations. Amadou Hampâté Bâ teaches us that, in Africa, an elder that dies is a library that burns.

Teachers Of African Societies

The elders tell tales of fantastic beings or familiar animals. Those tales are always teaching moments. Many of those teachings made it to the rest of the world in one form or another. Some of the best examples are the teachings of Aesop (yes, he was African), which Jean De la Fontaine completely plagiarised. Talk about cultural appropriation (a topic for another time).

Children are not simply sitting in a room to listen to a teacher. They actually get to explore nature. They get to see the relationship between different parts of nature: millipedes, frogs, plants, bees, and many different kinds of interactions. The elders are the ones who help the children understand these relationships.

Unfortunately, that form of education is disappearing; European colonization has imposed a new form of education that allowed us to know things without necessarily understanding them. The Malian writer, Dr. Seydou Badian, illustrated it well in his popular book Caught in the Storm (not an affiliate link).

Final Words

Ubuntu philosophy is about what can be achieved through collaboration. It’s about working together for the betterment of all; for those who came before us (in how we remember them) and for those who are yet to come (for the kind of world we leave them).

Some say it is Africa’s openness and her fundamental belief in caring and sharing that has caused her downfall. What do you think? Also, do you think that we, as a global society, can live the Ubuntu way? I think yes because, for nature, there is neither time nor space. Only rhythm. It always finds a way to rebalance and recalibrate itself.

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