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The Spirit of Ubuntu

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While a British anthropologist was studying a Zulu tribe in South Africa she observed that the sense of community was unlike anything she had ever seen. 

In a village of roughly 700 people it seemed as though every person had a connection with every other person. In her journal she noted, “Literally everybody shares with everybody else.”

One day, while playing with young kids down by the river, she decided to devise some “experimental games” to better understand this deep sense of connectedness.

In one of the games she put a basket full of candy at the base of a tree about 100 feet away. She instructed the children to stand behind a “starting line” she drew with a stick in the dirt.

She told them that when she shouted for them to go, they had to race to the tree and whoever got there first could have the basket of candy. She was amazed by what happened next…

“Hamba!” she shouted, but before the kids took off running they all took each other’s hands and ran together, laughing the entire way. 

When the kids got to the tree, they all placed their hands on the basket at the same time so they could each have an equal share of the sweet goodies. Then they sat down in a circle to enjoy the treats together.

Impressed by this show of warmth and generosity, she asked the children why they decided to run together and share instead of racing to see who could win all of the candy in the basket.

“Ubuntu!!!” they all exclaimed with joy. Then one child added, “How can one of us be happy if the others are sad?”

Later that day she asked a few adults in the village about the definition of ubuntu. They all said the same thing… “I am, because we are.” 

In further research she learned that the early development of human culture took root in humanist African philosophy. This literally means that “a person is a person through other people.”

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My son, Brian, recently told me about the concept of ubuntu. I say “concept” because it is represented by other names in various Bantu languages. Bantu is a large family of languages spoken in central and southern Africa by 350 million people, accounting for about 30% of the total population of Africa.

Brian said the concept itself is loosely translated as “humanity towards others” and “the sharing that connects us.” But what I found most interesting was how the idea originated.

While it’s impossible for anthropologists to determine exactly when and where its inception took place, most agree that the concept of ubuntu can be traced back thousands of years to when it was a necessity for survival.

I wrote an article in 2020 entitled Babies By The Billions. I discussed the shockingly high rate at which the human species has “multiplied.”

Today the global population is almost 8 billion. But just 200 years ago, in around 1800, it was only 1 billion. Roughly 300 years before that, in 1500, it was a measly 500 million.

Ever heard the expression “strength in numbers”? Well, thousands of years ago we didn’t have it. “Self reliance” was a laughable notion back then. A tight-knit community was a means of survival. Sharing was a way of life.

It’s different today. Societal evolution has made it so we don’t need to rely on each other as much. Then it was a necessity. Now it’s a choice.

Have we lost something along the way? Advancements in medicine, technology, and other areas have improved our lives in many ways. But at what cost? 

Do you have kids or grandkids? Place a basket of candy 100 feet away at the base of a tree. Then see… do they race to win it all, or hold hands and share? 

Do they understand the importance of “I am because we are”?

Do they feel the spirit of ubuntu?