MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Musings from Kenya about the word ubuntu July 26, 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michelle @ 6:12 pm

A friend of ours is doing his internship in Peace Studies (Notre Dame) in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes about their experiences and here he muses about the word "ubuntu", which is the word on the South African MotherTongues T-shirt. It is such a powerful word, with no direct translation in English, or in any other language that I know of.

Copied with permission from the writings of Tom Arendshorst:

Our little group — Sharon and I, Bill Simon, Father Bob, and Raphael the driver — met this morning outside downtown Nairobi’s Catholic Book Store. Sharon had purchased a poetic little book of selected African proverbs and reflections by an author named Annetta Miller.

I met today with Director George Wachira, the Nairobi Peace Initiative staff, and one of the organization’s original founders, Harold Miller. George himself is a former Kroc Institute grad. After the meeting I chatted with Harold, who was a high school teacher in Pennsylvania Dutch territory before beginning his 40-year career in East Africa as a Mennonite Central Committee worker for peace and social justice. He mentioned that his wife, over these many years, has collected 30,000 indigenous proverbs. I asked, "Proverbs from different parts of Africa, or worldwide?" "African," Harold answered. I reached into my bag of stuff and pulled out Sharon’s little book, saying, "That’s interesting; my wife Sharon bought this book of African proverbs this morning at the Catholic Book Store." "That’s my wife’s book," said Harold.

I told Sharon this when I got back to our apartment, and she wrinkled her forehead and said, "That’s interesting. You said his name is Harold?" She reached into a folder of names we’d been given by friends, of people we should look up in Kenya. "Yes. There it is!" She pointed to an entry that listed "Harold and Annetta Miller," with their address and phone number and e-mail. We’d been referred to them by friends, Esther and Dale, who now live in Oregon directing Journey into Freedom, an ecumenically Christian mission centered around social justice, issues of call, and quot;reverse missions" of cultural immersion among the poor of Calcutta,, Haiti, and Nairobi. Esther and Sharon are close confidantes, and I edit the Journey into Freedom newsletter four times a year. Now I’m working with an organization headed by a Kroc Institute graduate and co-founded by Esther and Dale’s old friend, Harold Miller.

None of us lives alone; we are who we are as parts of webs of relationships, and are nurtured and empowered by our communities of friends and families. This is, I guess, Ubuntu, South Africa’s "I am what I am because of who we are together." What does this say about our American dearly-held concept of self-reliant individualism? Can it be held in balance with the value of interdependent community, or are they mutually exclusive? How can I – how can we all – value both individual responsibility and the nurture of interdependent community?

"A person is a person through other persons." (African proverb)
"I am because we are; we are because I am. (Swahili proverb)
— Annetta Miller

Peace, MotherTongues


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