Ubuntu: What it 
means to be human

Last modified: 4/28/2014 6:27:03 PM
Ubuntu. The word doesn’t translate perfectly into English, but in the Nguni languages of southern Africa, it is the sum of all it means to be human, to be one of the human family. It means even though each of us is a unique individual with our own minds, bodies, and spirits, that is not all we are; our human being-ness emerges in how we relate with other human beings. Put another way, we are who we are through each other.

When I heard two university leaders from South Africa describe this bit of wisdom at the International Association of Universities’ conference, themed “Blending Higher Education and Traditional Knowledge for Sustainable Development” in Iquitos, Peru last month, I thought about how this simple phrase holds the power to completely flip the way we do business on planet Earth. Think: What would it look like if corporations, schools, neighborhoods, and governments adopted ubuntu in their decision-making? If our policies and practices were based on this recognition, that our own well-being is inseparable from the well-being of the planet and people with whom we share it, what kind of world would we make? How can ubuntu change the way we see our own individual capacities to make a difference?

I propose that each of us — you and I — can find a way, within the next 48 hours, to do just that.

It doesn’t have to be huge or take a lot of money, and even a small action where you are standing now can have an impact far away. It can be as simple as helping your neighbor dig a small garden bed, or carrying water in a reusable container instead of buying bottled water. Visit the seed lending center at Antrim’s Tuttle Library. Find out what’s happening with the local amphibian migration or alternative energy in your town. Take out a documentary on any environmental or social issue and watch it with a loved one over some locally crafted wine and cheese. Read the labels on clothing and electronics you might buy and find out whether people in those countries are treated poorly or really making a living. Visit this season’s farmers’ markets and invite someone from your church or workplace to go with you. Bring your kids to the local woods and pick up litter if you find any. Whatever you choose, enjoy yourself, and try to share it with someone else.

Jess Gerrior is an environmental educator and recent world traveler who enjoys climbing on things and learning. She is the sustainability coordinator at Franklin Pierce University and the Chair of the Monadnock Farm & Community Coalition. She lives in Antrim with her three child explorers and ten humorous chickens.


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