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Relationships • Romanticism

Why We Need ‘Ubuntu’

Across large parts of Southern Africa, it’s relatively easy to work out what might have gone wrong with the world. One might focus in on this or that misdemeanour or piece of nastiness, but ultimately it all comes back to a shortfall of what is known in the Zulu language as ‘ubuntu’.

Photograph of an African landscape, home to the Xhosa.
Christina Birch, Xhosa Landscape

It’s when we try to translate this as ‘love’ (as it is tempting to) that we recognise how poor our associations around our word might be. Ubuntu is distinctive; it means compassion and humanity and zeroes in on the crucial role that empathy should play in love well understood. Ubuntu is not admiration for what is beautiful, pure or accomplished, nor does it focus on an approbation of a single person. Ubuntu is first and foremost what we should feel around all the many people it would be so tempting to hate; those whom we instinctively believe are mistaken, ugly, wrong-headed or ridiculous; those who may have made some truly serious mistakes and offended our moral codes. To learn to feel ubuntu for such people, this is the real accomplishment – and the summit of our humanity. 

It is ubuntu when we can look at someone who appears misguided or proud and instead of labelling them despicable, can wonder with imagination and sympathy how they might have come to be this way; when we can perceive the lost, vulnerable or hurt child that must lie somewhere within the perplexing or dispiriting adult.

It is ubuntu when we can accept that most of the irksome things that others do stem not from ‘evil’ or an intention to hurt, but from some form of buried, unexplained and unmasterable anxiety or distress. It is ubuntu when we grow our capacities for kindness and make the effort to extend our compassion beyond the bounds of attraction to those who we might have deemed beyond the pale or ‘undeserving. It is ubuntu when we accept that the forbearance we ourselves crave, because of how many errors we have made and how foolish we have been, is in fact owed to everyone.

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