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  • Ann Werner

Ubuntu and the Dog-eared Journey

I love words. I collect words; … and bundles of words, phrases and quotes and sometimes, in the moment, because they are hitting the spot, I think that that they are written just for me! My bookshelves are lined with dog-eared pages to mark something profound, or impactful, or simply just so beautiful that I want to know where to find it again. I love the anticipation in tracking a particular paragraph, on a particular page, of a particular book, and where on the bookshelf I might find it…and my discovery is delightful! This is it! This is just what I wanted to share with someone. In turn, they can delight in the passage because of a shared experience, or feeling, or situation. They can be moved, inspired or affirmed as I was. As such, words can build a bridge of understanding and create a commonality in language, a union of our essential humaneness. Words form playful metaphors which stretch our understanding while subtle nuances cradle our sleepy daydreams. Or words may rock and shake our very core as we resist an uncomfortable perspective - resenting, insurgent and challenging. Dynamic and relational, words define human engagement and in their expression and shared understanding, create an interconnectedness vital to human belonging. Such interconnectedness is beautifully illustrated by Howard Cutler in a paragraph from HH Dalai Lama’s book, “The Art of Happiness”: (Quoted by Howard C Cutler, translator)

“… my mind started to wander again and I found myself absently removing a loose thread from my shirt sleeve. Tuning in for a moment, I listened as he (HH Dalai Lama) mentioned the many people who are involved in making all our material possessions. As he said this, I began to think about how many people were involved in making my shirt. I started by imagining the farmer who grew the cotton. Next, the salesperson who sold the farmer the tractor to plow the field. Then, for that matter, the hundreds or even thousands of people involved in manufacturing that tractor, including the people who mined the ore to make the metal for each part of the tractor. And all the designers of the tractor. Then of course, the people who processed the cotton, wove the cloth and the people who cut, dyed and sewed that cloth. The cargo workers and truck drivers delivering it to the store, and the salesperson who sold the shirt to me. It occurred to me that virtually every aspect of my life came about as the result of other’s efforts. My precious self-reliance was a complete illusion, a fantasy. As this realisation dawned on me, I was overcome with a profound sense of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings. I felt a softening. Something. I don’t know. It made me want to cry”. A century before this, a preacher named Henry Melvill, had already made this connection: “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibres connect us with our fellow-men (humans); and along those fibres, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects”. It would seem that Melvill, back in 1855 was writing of a concept that we, in Africa today, know as Ubuntu. It’s a word taken from the Zulu phrase "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu", which literally means that a person is a person through other people. There is so much to say about Ubuntu, but briefly, the core concept is of a common humanity, and the ideology embraces the awareness and retardation of self-centred practices so that humanity can advance, with a deeper integration of parity, ultimately paving the way for richness and benevolence. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, humanist to his very core quotes, (in keeping with this idea of the African renaissance and taking the concept further and into action): “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…a person is a person through other persons.’’ Thus, it doesn’t matter where or how we are connected, our actions, in turn have consequences for us all too. The words we use, what we do or think, how we behave - our very existence – are predictors of the world to come.

Gary Chapman created his model of the ‘5 Love Languages’, which he lists as: Gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion) and physical touch. He believes that it is usual for each person to have a primary and secondary love language. For me, words are paramount: they inspire me: through words, there is a reciprocal connection to others: words are my way of showing or receiving care, of expressing, of giving and yes, of affirming. What is your language of love? Or in Ubuntu speak, what is your language of ‘otherness’?

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