Ubuntu

Last semester – a lifetime ago, so it seems – we read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas in English 390S. Even now, I still often think about the “unreal loyalties” Woolf wrote about in reference to the divisions people create amongst themselves — and their use of those differences as grounds for exclusion and hatred.

The word “Ubuntu” originates here in South Africa. Translated from the Xhosa and Zulu languages into English, Ubuntu roughly means human-ness, or human kindness. That the very nature of being human is equated with compassion is striking to me. It would not be difficult to imagine the opposite to be true. Everywhere in the world, there are crimes perpetrated against humans by humans. Unreal loyalties – to religion, to race, to nationality – endow us with the capacity to commit evils of extraordinary proportions.

But Ubuntu isn’t choice any more than family is. The universal bond between people exists whether we recognize it or not. And therein the choice lies: will we embrace Ubuntu? Will we elect to love or hate?

I know that people are not black and white. Within us, there is the capacity for love and understanding – as well as hate and divisiveness. Sometimes, is only too easy for small misunderstandings and annoyances to develop into mistrust, and from mistrust into resentment and antipathy. The point at which we begin to perceive a person as intrinsically unlikable is where we lose the ability to truly see their Ubuntu. We develop gaping blind spots – capable of seeing that person’s faults and mistakes and blind to their instances of kindness.

Being here gives me hope. Everyday, I witness instances of people embracing Ubuntu. The man at the Laundromat who takes care of our laundry never fails to greet us with warmth. Yesterday at Sonke, where Rachel and I work, they threw us a going-away party, though we had both only been with the organisation for two months. Everywhere in Cape Town, people of different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities have shown us small instances of extraordinary kindness to the foreigners from the states.

The South African people are not singular in this regard: Ubuntu lives on in all corners of the world, in places of peace and strife. For every act of cruelty committed in the name of unreal loyalties, there are countless more instances of human goodness done in the name of our common humanity.

The dream of Mandela, and so many other unrecognized activists of the world, was life without walls and windows between the humans of this world. South Africa, as imperfect a country as it is, has made long strides toward that dream since the end of apartheid two decades ago. If the victims of oppression and injustice can embrace the spirit of Ubuntu, I am hopeful that we as Americans from many different places and backgrounds – who are different yet similar in ways which we sometimes fail to see – can as well.

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