MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

More about the wonderful African concept of ubuntu August 2, 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michelle @ 7:42 pm

With the permission of Tom Arendshorst, here are more of his musings from Kenya about the concept of ubuntu, the word that is on our South African MotherTongues T-shirt.. He even mentions MotherTongues!

Our first weekend on our own here Sharon led me into a nearby maze of street stalls full of Kenyan crafts – exactly how I generally choose to spend my free afternoons. The stalls are continuous, each about eight feet across, each hosted by a variously aggressive huckster eager to dispense something out of his or her (a number were women, much less lamprey-like), treasure trove of ebony animals, painted little birds, baskets, shawls, warrior weapons, and priceless unique artifacts made by his grandfather and indistinguishable from the stuff two stalls back. You know how these things are set up; the whole market is crammed onto a little section of city dirt, and you weave among bodies as if at an overflowing cocktail party.

Sharon was seriously looking, but dedicated to not buying anything, just looking and trying to scope out the territory, which drove the marginally desperate vendors nuts. I meandered purposelessly behind, trying to be amiable, trying my limited Swahili vocabulary, looking for pretty things that might be perfect on some unclaimed bit of exposed surface in some welcoming home, thinking of purchasing an authentic Kenyan beer.

I was wearing my “Ubuntu” shirt, the one with the explanatory “I am what I am because of who we all are together” on the back with a little South African flag. A guy sitting in one of the shops said, “Ubuntu; what’s that?”
I guess I’d thought that the word and concept might have been familiar in Kenya; it’s become widely known around the world for its part in South Africa’s nonviolent overthrow of apartheid. “Ubuntu,” I responded intelligently. “It means this,” and I turned to reveal the print across my back. The Kenyan read it, and said, “Oh, that’s like us. I’m a person of my village.” He smiled and reached out his hand. I gave him the secret Kenyan handshake that men do here – like ours, then wrist cocked up, like kids do at home, then standard again for the finish. “Are you South African?” We chatted for a moment, until I realized that I’d become lost, unable to see Sharon. I moved to catch up, but each shopkeeper was as eager to snare me in conversation as an angler hopes to hook a walleye, and I found myself greeting and explaining that I was really just trying to catch up to my wife, who’d already explained that she wasn’t buying anything. I caressed and complimented carved rhinos and giraffes, beaded whatsits, woven thingies, and revered tribal artifacts. One after another, vendors were interested in my “Ubuntu” shirt and its authentically African concept of community-over-individual-autonomy.
By the time we left, I think I’d had, really, fun.

Later that same afternoon Sharon and I were drifting through the Sarit mall when a guy called, “Hey!” I turned, and the American-sounding guy continued, “Where’d you get that shirt?” I explained Michelle Hamman’s business of making a series of shirts, each bearing a word on the front depicting a country’s indigenous concept for richness of community and a brief interpretation on the back. “She has a website, ‘mothertongues’”, I told him. “I think they’re pretty cool.” (I use words like “cool” to help people, who might be confused by my appearance of svelte youth, to understand in what geological period I grew up.) Andy – his name was Andy – was quite enthused about the shirt and ubuntu itself. It turns out that Andy is a career missionary, now the Regional Representative of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Africa, and had participated in a conference highlighted by learning about ubuntu.

As I learn about and watch the functioning and dysfunction of Kenya’s political and socioeconomic systems, I am struck by Kenya’s need to reclaim its own traditions of community values and traditions. Kenya’s peoples, like indigenous tribes and nations throughout Africa, have rich traditions of conflict resolution that sustained communities and provided avenues for real reconciliation. When Great Britain and other European states moved in to colonize Africa, they imposed foreign value systems that were very different from those of the African peoples – and, sadly, their industrialized, authoritarian, capitalistic value systems made very little sense for the African social systems.

Africa’s peoples are intensely community-based, centering their systems of politics, justice, and economy around extended families and their agricultural or pastoral lives. They appreciate nature as part of their religious world. They place tremendous value on community and tribal reconciliation. Even now, city-dwelling business people often spend their weekends with their families in what they still consider their “homes” away from the city.

Our “western” understandings of civilization – individualistic, competitively capitalistic, individually landowning, legalistic, authoritarian, and judgmentally punitive – have contributed mightily to Africa’s chaotic struggles to regain order after colonial slavery ended. Christianity, sadly, despite its good intentions, has acted generally as part of this ideological imperialism. Only in recent years have Christian missions and missionaries become more broadly understanding of the underlying needs of African peoples. Now mainline churches (some evangelical missions remain very aggressive) are learning to integrate the real essences of Christianity with African social and ideological traditions – which are at least as consistent with Jesus’ teachings as are our own. The profound colonial influence of the past 130 years has severely degraded the indigenous foundations of African society.

African peacebulding, however, has increasingly re-discovered these underlying values. The world-heralded Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa has employed to move peacefully from the long horror of apartheid into black-majority statehood is a triumph of African understanding of justice based on Ubuntu. Here in East Africa, and in West Africa, peacebuilders have come to recognize the imperative of re-integrating indigenous philosophies of justice and social integration into its westernized political and economic systems. Increasingly, against the strong currents of powerful economic interests, political leaders are regaining these same insights. How this will play out in the future of Africa is impossible to foresee.

Where, in our American communities, is our “ubuntu”? What are the essential connections on which we rely for the integration of our society, and for justice? How do our cultural values serve these all-important needs? Or, am I wrong in thinking them to be so important?

– MotherTongues

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