Last year, while in South Africa, we spent about twenty days with a remarkable Zulu Songoma, Credo Mutwa. This was over a four-month period, and we would stay for three or four days at a time. My wife was shooting a documentary to be released in 2008, and we gathered over forty hours of footage for this show. Recently she has been editing the footage, and as I was watching and listening to the wisdom of this great man, now eighty-six years old, I realized what would be this month’s topic – Ubuntu.
We have visited with Credo Mutwa each year since 1993, and over that time a friendship has developed. We felt honoured when he invited us to record some of his teachings, for he has no successor, and when he dies many of his stories and teachings will leave with him. He is not the only teacher of Ubuntu, but he is perhaps the most knowledgeable and most eloquent. When he passes, and at eighty-six that will be sooner rather than later, it will be as if a great library has burned to the ground.
It is Credo’s wish that Ubuntu will spread throughout the world to ail a suffering humanity that has lost touch with its basic humanness. “Africa’s wisdom must be shared with the world now,” says Credo. “Africa has so much to offer the world…but alas, people only focus on negativity and problems.”
Africa does indeed have so much to offer, and for too long it has it been ignored and trivialized. Long before the eras of the Greek and Roman empires, Africa thrived and was the foundation for and creative genius behind such divergent subjects as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, architecture and engineering, to name but a few. Let us not forget that the pyramids of Egypt, built thousands of years ago, are still, to this day, a pinnacle of human engineering. Even today they could not be built with greater accuracy and precision.
Western civilization is built on the wisdom and knowledge of the African continent. Egypt had the first universities and the first libraries. The history books written by Europeans forget this aspect, but the truth of man’s evolution culturally and intellectually is open to anyone to pursue, and once pursued, it leads clearly to Africa, with the height of its achievement being Ancient Egypt. However it was not just the Egypt we know from history books, but Ethiopia as well, which in ancient times stretched across most of Africa, as far south as South Africa and west to the Atlantic Ocean. This great nation has not been given its due respect.
Ubuntu is not easy to describe. It is both a philosophy and a way of action. It is a distinctive African cosmological system of teaching each individual to appreciate and enjoy their life while caring, sharing and respecting others. Ubuntu belongs to no one tribe or no one religion or teaching. It transcends all attempts to restrict it and place it in a category. It is simply a way of living and being that allows our basic goodness to come forth.
Ubuntu values the dignity, safety and welfare of the individual over all other considerations. It is a holistic perspective which requires that society be managed for the good of all and not just for the few. A Xhosa proverb states, “Ubuntu ungamuntu ngabanye abantu.” People are people through other people. In other words we need each other to be fully human and alive. It is in our interaction with others that our humanness flourishes. Our humanness at its core is good and positive, and through discovering this in ourselves we act in a way that reflects these truths.
As I write this, my thoughts turn to one of the greatest African leaders of all time. A man who all of us are fortunate to know in our lifetimes, Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela is the embodiment of Ubuntu and has spoke of it often, though the term, not familiar to western ears, has gone unnoticed.
He dedicated himself to the cause of his people and never stopped struggling to free the South African blacks from Apartheid. In 1993, after serving twenty-seven years in prison, he was released, and within a year was the first black President of South Africa. There was no bitterness or resentment from his years in prison, only wisdom, patience and compassion. No other leader could have unified the new country. He is an iconic figure and will be remembered, respected and admired not only by us and our children, but by our children’s children. Such is his legacy.
It would not surprise me that through the example of Nelson Mandela and the teachings of Credo Mutwa that Ubuntu is finally discovered by the rest of the world.
Read more: UBUNTU Part II