Saturday, February 19, 2011

ubuntu versus age (full post)

When we first arrived in South Africa, one of the first cultural sessions we attended was about 'ubuntu', the indigenous South African philosophy of communalism. Though ubuntu is a Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, etc) word, the idea is embraced by South Africans and people throughout the continent, in Setswana (and other Sotho languages), there is an expression that sums up ubuntu "motho ke motho ka batho" (a person is a person because of people...the similar Zulu expression is "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu"). As ubuntu was presented to us, it was a South African idea (there are similar words in many other Bantu languages throughout Eastern and Southern Africa as these languages are all pretty similar...Bantu languages just make up one sub-branch of the Niger-Congo language contrast in Chad you find languages from completely different language families indigenous to places less than 100 km from each other), but in reality it is something that exists around the world not just in Africa.

The Raza studies teachers in Tucson taught their students to recite a poem beginning "tu eres mi otro yo" (you are my other me) which has it's origins in Mayan thought (the Mayan is "in lak'ech" but since I don't know Mayan, I'm sorry if that's wrong.) I believe that at some point in time, most everyone in the world lived by this philosophy.

Though I do not really agree with everything that Durkheim said about mechanical and organic solidarity, I see these concepts as good ways of looking at the differences in indigenous (I say indigenous because for the most part indigenous peoples are the one's maintaining societies that can be characterized as having mechanical solidarity) and Western or Northern societies. As Durkheim says, societies characterized by mechanical solidarity lack a complex division of labor (there can be blacksmiths, carpenters, and farmers but these people are connected and you know where the things you consume come from) which creates a collective consciousness that maintains social order. In societies with complex divisions of labor, people are less connected to each other hence individualism, inequality, and all the other fun that arises (at which point Marx has a much more cogent critique in my opinion).

So returning to the idea of ubuntu, I see ubuntu as both a manifestation of a collective social consciousness (of course we want to help each other because we see how interrelated we all are) and the law stemming from this collective social consciousness that governs the relationships between people in indigenous societies. It is hard for us Americans coming from our individualistic, capitalist society to truly embrace this idea because we are committed to protecting our own self interest first. Sure, I'll donate to charity, but I would never do so to the point where I would myself at risk for not having enough money for clothes, food, or shelter.

The concept becomes even more problematic here in South Africa because the world people live in is not characterized by mechanical solidarity at all. People buy their groceries at the grocery store, and they work in factories. I was reminded recently as we drove through a village in Zambia and saw how much was growing on the side of the road how far a South African village is from being self-sufficient (really even the Zambian village isn't with all the imported clothing, pots and pans, plastic, etc, but it is much more so.)

So how can we have ubuntu when the economic structure is most definitely capitalist, not to mention the cultural imperialism of the US that South Africans consume every evening (and day if they are unemployed) on their TV sets? I would argue though that it does exist despite these influences, yet it isn't so easy to see as one might expect. People are quietly loaning each other money, bringing food to neighbors, etc. People know when their help is needed, and they bring it. They aren't, like us Americans, trumpeting what they are doing for other people to everyone they know. I think that humility is a part of ubuntu because you do what you do because of the way you are connected to other people. You don't see it as a triumph but as a part of being a person.

The other issue that some Americans seem to struggle with is how the hierarchy of age relates to ubuntu. I would argue that in many indigenous societies, age is a very important part of social structure. We, in America, lament that we have lost this when we talk about how we don't take care of the elderly anymore, but just send them off to nursing homes. But we are horrified by this when we hear that a teacher sent a student to buy him some Coke at the shop down the street. I know that I have become particularly desensitized to this as a negative thing because I don't think it's particularly extreme here in South Africa (in Chad, they would close school so the kids could go build a teacher a house for example), but I think it is more an issue of understanding that hierarchy based on age is an inherent part of many indigenous societies. It seems to become less strong in societies with some organic solidarity like here, and hardly exists at all in white middle class America. I would argue that it is important way of organizing society and to see it as helpful or harmful to people is to miss the point. It is about how people relate to each other, and I know many people might disagree with me but there is no wrong or right. In order to have a society that venerates elders, you are going to have a society that does not venerate young people.

While it's easy to think of age as just related to the treatment of children and old people, in reality this age hierarchy that I am talking about affects people of all ages. In Tswana culture as well as many cultures all over the world, boys and girls go through an initiation process to enter into adulthood. Currently, the initiation of boys is more prevalent than girls and initiation schools get in the news sometimes because they can involve circumcisions not done by a doctor (though many more are conducted with a doctor present and sterile instruments). Tswana initiation schools take place in the winter in the bush. They are physically trying and serve to bond the boys (and girls) of that age together. Historically, and to a certain extent today, those age group bonds continue for the rest of their lives. One of our elderly neighbors recently had a part for people of her age group. While in America, upon reaching adulthood, the age of friends becomes less and less important, that isn't the case in a society where age places such an important role. The right of older people to ask younger people to do things for them does not just apply to asking children. During our evacuation in Cameroon, our boss's husband from Guinea asked one of the volunteer's boyfriends (a Cameroonian) to go run errands for him. He obliged without a question.

Both ubuntu and age are important parts of indigenous societies in Africa and around the world. Ubuntu defines how people should interact with each other, but it does not mandate that they should treat children as their equals. I would argue that these ideas are not in opposition. You can do you part to help children (taking in orphans of your family members or buying your students' school uniforms), but that does not mean that you have to treat them like they are your equal. Your equals are the people who are the same age as you. You also must respect your own elders even if that means doing things for them that aren't always glamorous. The interpretation of these ideas being in conflict with each other presupposes that caring about other people and recognizing your interdependence with them means thinking of them as your equals. This is not the case, and it's just another example of how easy it is to presuppose your own values on other people.

Anyway, I have been thinking about this a lot lately so I'm sorry if you actually read it and were bored to death. Cheers.


  1. I really like this post, although i question why you think a society which venerates the old cannot also respect the young. And also, it was very touching for me to be told one of my co-workers at school and fellow villagers was my molekane, my same age special bond friend, because i know how important it is for integration into an ubuntu based society. Very touched :-D

  2. I guess maybe I shouldn't have said respect, I mean more like coddle. I feel like you can respect young people but understand their place. What I more mean is that that idea that children can't do work, ever leave their house alone, etc that many in suburban America seem to have adopted. I've never liked this idea myself, and it seems to be less prevelant in rural/urban areas in America, but I do think that they seem to be in conflict with each other. Though you are right, you should be able to value all people in a society and treat them equally (something that I do actually value), I just feel like I haven't really seen that happen.