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Unhu / Ubuntu-ism 101

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Unhu or ubuntu has become popular even informing the philosophy and values behind a free open source operating system. Sadly there are very few people who live this philosophy on a daily basis.

In a recent interview with Professor Mandivamba Rukuni. He described what motivated him to write his book Being Afrikan:

I realised, after having been highly educated and being in the development field, that not much of what I’ve achieved has really made a difference to the people that I serve. Most of the people in my extended family are still poor. I realised that it was a false progress, I’m a professor, but it’s only good for me. I realised that there’s no developed or advanced society in the world that achieved that status by abandoning their history, abandoning their culture and then borrowing somebody else’s as a basis for development.

He went to say that African culture is built on three pillars, the first of which is Ubuntu, or in Shona Unhu.

The philosophy of unhu or ubuntu is described in Shona by the saying munhu munhu nevanhu; or in Zulu umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. The literal English translation is ‘A person is a person with other people’ or ‘I am because we are’.

In his book Hunhuism or Ubuntuism, co-authored with his wife Dr Tommie Marie Samkange, Zimbabwean historian and author Stanlake J.W. Samkange, highlighted the three maxims of unhu / ubuntu, namely:

1.    To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and establishing respectful human relations with them.
2.    If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life
3.    The king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him

Archbishop Desmond Tutu described unhu or ubuntu as:

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. 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.

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