If you ask someone from South Africa to define the African Ubuntu philosophy they’d have plenty to say! But ask the average North American, and you’ll probably find a whole lot of head-scratching.
The Ubuntu ethic is a philosophy born from African philosophy. While it has been around for centuries, it was largely popularized in Southern Africa by Nelson Mandela, who gave the concept the international reach it has achieved today.
But what exactly is Ubuntu? What does it mean? And what can humanity learn from this concept?
Let’s dive in and learn more!
What Is Ubuntu?
Let’s start at the beginning: What is Ubuntu? And what does it mean?
The word Ubuntu is nothing new, with references to it being found as far back as 1846. While the concept has many different definitions and translations, the most popular definition comes from a Zulu phrase. This phrase, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” translates roughly to “a person is a person through other people.”
Though this definition sounds simple at first, it represents a mode of African humanism (a mode of humanism rooted in the belief that no human being is superior to another) and an evolving political philosophy that can get complex when you break it down. It can be used as a moral theory when debating anything from human rights to apartheid to basic human dignity.
African philosophy is rooted in a deep and complex tradition of morals and ethics. And, like all philosophy, it can help us better unpack the workings of our lives, and learn lessons about the truths of ourselves.
Exploring the Meaning of Ubuntu
Let’s dive deeper into the definition of Ubuntu a little bit more to appreciate the complexity and depthfulness of the term.
As we touched on above, the most widely accepted definition comes from a Zulu phrase that teaches us that human beings are human beings because of their relationships with other human beings.
In essence, this ethic tells us that we find identity through our relationships with one another. That we live as a shared humanity, and our human-ness comes not from individual experiences, but our relationships. Ubuntu asks us to reflect on how we exist as a collective, and how much of the self (your own humanity, your own personhood) is formed through how we relate to others.
This is notable, because it shifts the focus away from the individual, and towards the collective. Ubuntu is asking you to view yourself not as an individual, but part of a group. It says that your humanity is formed through relationships, making how we relate to and treat one another vital to our essence.
In this mindset, the thing humanity needs to prioritize are the ways we treat each other. On paper, this all sounds quite simple, but putting it into practice isn’t always easy.
Who Popularized Ubuntu?
The concept of Ubuntu has an interesting history, having been adopted by many thinkers and philosophers in its lifetime. Its roots are in African humanism, focused on the idea that community is the basis of society, and the idea of collective humanity defining us as human beings.
Recently, Desmond Tutu popularized this philosophy in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, In this book, he describes someone with Ubuntu as a person who is “open and available to others, affirming of others … has a proper self-assurance.”
This provides another angle on the philosophy of Ubuntu. When you live with Ubuntu, you live in a way where you are open to others and know that by helping others you become a richer human as well.
Nelson Mandela also famously spoke from this concept. As a part of his leadership, he often relied on the concept as he helped post-apartheid South Africa unify. He ruled with the principle that leadership comes from a place of peace for humanity, and a focus on working to help heal a greater whole through cooperation, connection, and community.
Using Ubuntu Philosophy in Daily Life
As we can see, the concept of Ubuntu is a wide-reaching one, able to apply to political concepts and philosophical modes of thought. But what would it mean to apply this concept to your daily life?
Below I’ve outlined some of the many ways you can apply the Ubuntu philosophy to your day-to-day thinking. Let’s see how you can use Ubuntu to inspire a mindset shift.
No Person Is An Island
If you can take one thing away from the concept of Ubuntu and apply it to daily life let it be this: No person is an island. A meaningful and well-lived life is enjoyed by supporting and being supported by others. Ubuntu speaks to the idea of collective humanity. When we live with ubuntu, we acknowledge that a key part of the human experience is our relationships with, and reliance on, other people.
Western and American cultures often have us look the other way – self reliance, independence, be the first and best. We’re often told to hustle hard, and not burden others with our problems. This is a quick way to get burnt out and lose our connection with others.
In reality, no person can do it all alone. We’ll always come to a point where we need help, whether it’s an extra set of hands to carry some plates to a table, or a coworker to take on parts of a project we can’t do.
As human beings we need each other, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s wonderful to ask for and receive the help you need. Too often we assume other people aren’t willing and able to help. With Ubuntu, we are reminded that there is joy in helping and being helped by others and that doing so helps us grow into better people, and enjoy better community.
In my practice, this comes up a lot when people think about networking. People resist asking others for help when in fact those others would *love* to provide help and support. I speak a lot about this in chapters 4 and 5 of Personal Revolution.
Work For Collective Good
When we approach our lives with the collective in mind, it makes it easier to make choices for the greater good.
Ubuntu invites us to unlearn the individualistic, self-centered attitudes that the more materialistic philosophies have introduced. With Ubuntu our mindset shifts from thinking of self to thinking of team, and we can reorient ourselves to the needs of the collective, the needs of others.
This can manifest in many ways, big and small. This might look like recycling more because you want the world to be cleaner for kids in the future, or donating to disaster relief during a global crisis to help others in the way you can.
Ubuntu can help to remind us that there is much we can do to help those around us, and a joy to be found in doing so.
Celebrating Our Differences
Ubuntu philosophy can also be a great mindset shift and help us better recognize and celebrate the things that make us different.
Again, Ubuntu philosophy asks us to increase our awareness of others. To look at our community, recognize everyone’s humanity, see people as individuals, and cherish the relationships we have with one another.
In doing so, we often experience mindset shifts that increase our awareness of others. We can more fully see each other’s humanity despite our differences, and recognize the different needs of other people. In this way, separation in light of difference can diminish, as we focus more on the things that connect us collectively rather than our differences as individuals.
Enriching Our Relationships
Finally, I appreciate Ubuntu for the way it can encourage us to prioritize our relationships with others.
With Ubuntu, we are saying that our humanity exists in the way we connect to one another. In this mindset, our relationships with others become the important point of focus in our lives, which in many instances can be a good thing.
This encourages us to think about how we can be of service to one another, how we can support one another, and the things we can do to help the collective.
From a relationship perspective, this can look a lot like changing your mindset from “How can this benefit me?” to “How can this benefit us?” In this way, putting more time into fostering healthy relationships is a good thing for all involved.
Shift Your Mindset, Change Your Life
As a Life Coach, I am dedicated to helping my clients change their lives by changing their minds.
A whole lot of good can come out of the right healthy attitude shift. If the concept of Ubuntu philosophy has resonated with you, you might be wondering how you can implement it in your own life. That’s where I come in.
As your Life Coach, I can meet you where you are, and help you strategize your life to determine how to make the changes you need to achieve the goals you got. This could be anything from a change in career, to a change in mindset, to get you where you want to be.
If you’d like to learn more, let’s book an introductory session and get started.