Ubuntu, The Essence of What It Is to be Human

In observance of Martin Luther King Day on January 20th, the following excerpt by Reverend Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, was taken from the introduction of the book Dream, chronicling the words and inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr. The introduction is both poignant and timely, the premise of which addresses a central tenet of African philosophy – the essence of what it is to be human. As we embark on a new year and decade, perhaps a resolution with “self” and those qualities that define “ubuntu” is in store. Afterall, our “self” impacts the community at large, and we are inextricably bound to one another. An excerpt follows.

If I diminish you, I diminish myself. In my culture and tradition, the highest praise that can be given to someone is, “Yu, u nobuntu,” an acknowledgment that he or she has this wonderful quality, ubuntu. It is a reference to their actions toward their fellow human beings, it has to do with how they regard people and how they see themselves within their intimate relations, their familial relationships, and within the broader community. A person with ubuntu is friendly, hospitable, generous, gentle, caring and compassionate. In other words, someone who will use their strengths on behalf of others – the week, poor and ill – and not take advantage of anyone. They share their worth as part of a greater whole. Put another way, “a person is a person through other people,” a concept captured by the phrase “me we.”

Because we need one another, our natural tendency is to be cooperative and helpful. We have kept on because we strive for harmony and community, a community not only of the living but also one that honors our forebears. This link to the past gives us a sense on continuity, a sense that we have created societies for the greater good, overcoming anything that subverts our purpose. Wars end, and we seek to heal.

The essence of ubuntu, or “me we,” shines so clearly in the life and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. King depicts the recognition that our responsibility is not only toward the community of the living but our ancestors as well. He sought to achieve human rights for black Americans and thereby humanize their slave forebears. For him it meant enduring state harassment, imprisonment, and ultimately, assassination. Yet he never wavered in his commitment to others. His ubuntu showed that the only way we can ever by human is together. The only way we can be free is together.

Reference material taken in part from the following sources: Dream, Blue Mountain Press, Introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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