Ubuntu, learning to give and learning to ask

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Ubuntu is an African, a Bantu, concept of coexisting with other people, of compassion, and of responsibility to other people. Although it's not as widespread in the rest of the world, for example, as the Christian concept of charity, it crops up now and again, frequently in interesting places (such as the name for a Linux interface). Ubuntu does, however, appear cover lots more than what Christian charity does seem to do, and is far broader in its approach. It is basically a “I am because you are” and, in my opinion, we would do well in our modern world to take a leaf out of that particular African book.

Ubuntu, pronounced /ùbúntú/ (oo-BOON-too), is an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people's allegiances and relations with each other. The word has its origin in the Bantu languages of southern Africa. Ubuntu is seen as a classical African concept.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered some explanation on this. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

And elder statesman Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu thus: “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for 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 enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

One of the interesting parts of about Ubuntu is a concept of extending one's self to others for equality. Sometimes in life, this will mean giving, and other times, it will mean asking for help.

While both can be difficult, put a lot more effort into learning to give than learning to ask. They look for gifts for family and friends, or opportunities to lend a helping hand, such as when a friend is moving apartments. I think most of us, myself included are like that. When someone on a street corner asks for money that is where, unfortunately, I draw a line and walk away. I know that there, by the grace of G-d go I, but then again most of those that do ask for money in such a way will spend it on booze and I do not intend to finance, even by giving even change, their habits that got them where they are in the first place.

Learning to ask for help, however, is just as important as learning to give in the process of creating community. I'll be the first to admit that I am frequently nervous to "impose" upon someone if I don't know them extremely well. But asking gives people a reminder that they are a responsible part of a larger world. By asking, you might be teaching them a way to help other people in your same situation. By asking, you may also be showing them that it's okay for them to ask when the need arises. And perhaps most importantly, by asking you start an interaction that gives you both a stronger connection to each other.

But, as said, asking for help, in “western” society appears to be seen as to admitting defeat and not being able to do things for oneself. And this is, I think, where we have to relearn. If we do not ask people do not know that we may be in need, and even if it is only the use of a helping hand to put together the bed that we have just bought and which calls for two people to put it together.

© 2011