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I am, because of you: Further reading on Ubuntu

Boyd Varty speaks about Ubuntu, and how it can be seen in nature, at TEDWomen 2013. Photo: Kristoffer Heacox

Boyd Varty speaks about Ubuntu, and how it can be seen in nature, at TEDWomen 2013. Photo: Kristoffer Heacox

Boyd Varty’s talk brings together many fascinating moments: a tribute to Nelson Mandela (who passed away just hours before Varty took the stage at TEDWomen 2013 last week), Boyd Varty: What I learned from Nelson Mandela Boyd Varty: What I learned from Nelson Mandela incredible footage of animals shot on the Londolozi Game Reserve (which Varty’s family transformed from a hunting ground to a game reserve in 1973, and where Varty currently works), and memories of a dear tracker friend named Sully (who greeted everyone at his door with the words, “Hello, I love you” and once saved Varty from the jaws of a crocodile). Varty’s talk brings together these threads to illuminate a concept.

“While it’s true that Africa is a harsh place, I also know it to be a place whose people, animals and ecosystems teach us about a more interconnected world,” says Varty in this emotional talk. “[Nelson] Mandela said often that the gift of prison was the ability to go within and to think, to create within himself the things he most wanted for South Africa: peace, reconciliation, harmony. Through this act of intense open-heartedness, he was to become the embodiment of what in South Africa we call Ubuntu. ‘I am; because of you.’”

Ubuntu is a beautiful — and old — concept. According to Wikipedia, at its most basic, Ubuntu can be translated as “human kindness,” but its meaning is much bigger in scope than that — it embodies the ideas of connection, community, and mutual caring for all. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee (watch her TED Talk) once defined using slightly different words than Varty: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Interested in hearing more? Check out these sources.

  • A (very) brief history of the term. For a great overview of the origins of Ubuntu, check out this article from Media Club South Africa. According to the piece, the first use of the term in print came in 1846 in the book I-Testamente Entsha by HH Hare. However, the word didn’t become popularized until the 1950s, when Jordan Kush Ngubane wrote about it in The African Drum magazine and in his novels. In 1960, the term made another leap as it was used at the South African Institute for Race Relations conference. According to Wikipedia, the concept of Ubuntu transformed into a political ideology in Zimbabwe, as the nation was granted independence from the United Kingdom. From there, in the 1990s, it became a unifying idea in South Africa, as the nation transitioned from apartheid. In fact, the word Ubuntu even appears in South Africa’s Interim Constitution, created in 1993: “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.”
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  • Desmond Tutu’s take. Ubuntu became known in the West largely through the writings of Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of Cape Town who was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. As he approached retirement, Tutu was asked by Mandela to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to come to terms with the human rights offenses of the past in order to move into the future. In his memoir of that time period, No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu writes, “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto’; ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” For more analysis of how Ubuntu inspired Tutu, check out the book Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu, written by Michael Battle, who studied under the archbishop.
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  • Nelson Mandela’s take. In 2006, South African journalist Tim Modise interviewed Mandela and asked him specifically how he defines the concept of Ubuntu. Mandela replies, “In the old days when we were young, a traveller through a country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or water; once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is, are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you, and enable it to improve? These are important things in life. And if you can do that, you have done something very important.” Watch Modise reflect on Mandela’s death on CBS This Morning.
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  • Bill Clinton’s take. Former US President and 2007 TED Prize winner Bill Clinton (watch his talk) has embraced the philosophy of Ubuntu in his philanthropic work at the Clinton Foundation. “So Ubuntu — for us it means that the world is too small, our wisdom too limited, our time here too short, to waste any more of it in winning fleeting victories at other people’s expense. We have to now find a way to triumph together,” he said at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in 2006. He’s applied these theories to politics as well. At a Labour Party conference in the UK in 2006, he told the Labour delegates that society and collaboration is important because of Ubuntu. “If we were the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most wealthy, the most powerful person — and then found all of a sudden that we were alone on the planet, it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans,” he said.
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  • Ubuntu, the operating system. Ubuntu is also the name of “the world’s most popular free OS.” It was named this by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who launched Ubuntu in 2005 to compete with Microsoft. Unbuntu is all about open source development — people are encouraged to improve upon the software so that it continually gets better. According to this article in The New York Times  from 2009, “Created just over four years ago, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) has emerged as the fastest-growing and most celebrated version of the Linux operating system, which competes with Windows primarily through its low, low price: $0.” Read up on Ubuntu’s latest release, or check out this list of great Ubuntu apps.
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  • Ubuntu in basketball. According to ESPN.com, Ubuntu has had an effect on the NBA. The concept trickled into American professional basketball through Kita Thierry Matungulu, a founder of the South African organization Hoops 4 Hope. In 2002, Matungulu ended up at the same table at a fundraising event with Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics and introduced him to the concept of Ubuntu. Five years later, Rivers invited Matungulu to speak to his team, and Ubuntu became their rallying call — it was even inscribed in their championship rings in 2008. Most recently, Rivers brought the concept to the Los Angeles Clippers. “Ubuntu works in life. It works for everybody. It doesn’t have to be basketball,” says Rivers. “It’s about being resilient and sharing the joy with your teammate when he’s doing well and feeling the pain when your teammate is feeling bad.”
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  • Ubuntu to turn back climate change? Can Ubuntu’s ideas about collectivity be applied to climate change? South African activist Alex Lenferna argues yes. In an essay published today in Think Africa Press, “What Climate Change Activists Can Learn From Mandela’s Great Legacy,” Lenferna shares how thinking about our collective humanity could help form a united front of environmentalism. Of Ubuntu, Lenferna writes, “If we accept such a philosophy, then given our knowledge of anthropogenic climate change, our drive to enrich ourselves through the use of greenhouse gas intensive modes of development at the expense of our climate, our planet and the well-being of current and future generations should not be seen as true development but something that violates Ubuntu, diminishes our humanity, and makes us as individuals, nations, and as a global community, less than we could otherwise be.” This idea of Ubuntu inspiring an overhaul of our resource use is gaining traction — it came up at the Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa in January of 2012. Could this way of thinking extend across the globe?