Ubuntu: The African Philosophy of saying “I acknowledge you”

It is dusk in a small one-story building painted white, surrounded by acacia trees and dry trampled grass as a result of 10-year-old boys playing football with plastic bottles; marks of kicks and recess activities made history on these ancient grounds. Instead of the everyday navy blue uniform is seen climbing trees and crawling on the crunchy grass, today students were sitting dressed up in creative interpretations of their dream jobs. The would-be Kings had plastic bottles cut in half with sharp edges representing their crowns. The would-be doctors brought in their pet snakes as a substitute for the stethoscopes they long to have. 

One student, in particular, dressed up in a white shirt and pants with palm leaves to substitute the wings of a plane glued to his shirt. “I want to fly and help people. I want to be seen when others look up.”

The idea of “to be seen” has been embedded in 8-year-old Zimbabwe-born Abel, who will soon be reaching the 1-year milestone of his landing in Hong Kong with his parents and younger brother. Abel’s first time setting foot on an aircraft secured his dreams of becoming a pilot. 

Abel’s time in the restless city was difficult. Adapting to a different school environment proved to be the most arduous for him; “I was invisible. [They] My classmates looked at me because I was different. I felt like a museum. But I want them to get to know me.” Abel would remark. He considered himself fortunate enough to pass school days with no trouble involved. He was grateful to be surrounded by people who respected him from day 1.

Still, his need to be spoken to as a friend instead of a passerby has greatly increased in which this empty space is yet to be filled.

An African philosophy extensively shared by the people living in the southern part of the mother continent is demonstrated in Abel’s need to be acknowledged. “Ubuntu” encompasses multiple meanings but has come down to the Chichewan interpretation: “I am because we are”. 

First appearing in South African sources as early as the mid-19th century, the concept has evolved to be a philosophy attributed to the African people undergoing decolonization in the 1960s. Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange’s publication “Hunhuism or Ubuntuism: A Zimbabwe Indegineous Political Philosophy” (1980) presents Ubuntuism as a political ideology for the people of now-Zimbabwe during the independence of South Rhodesia from the British. The Ubuntu philosophy spread to South Africa during the 1990s apartheid transitioning to majority rule, and is found in the “Epilogue of the Interim Constitution of South Africa” (1993):

“there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.”

Today, what this philosophy means for the people of Zimbabwe and southern African countries is the importance of acknowledging your presence and the presence of others as “I am because we are”. Ubuntu is practiced equally at home and on the streets. It calls for being aware of one’s surroundings and to be kind to those you encounter in your path. As simple as displaying gratitude to the local grocery store cashier is enough acknowledgment on their part. An effortless smile directed towards a neighbor or the janitor at your workplace means practicing the idea of Ubuntu.

Struck by homesickness, Abel shared his desire to be floating amidst the misty clouds and vast blue horizon that stems from his evaporating Ubuntu philosophy. Being a pilot to Abel means he is able to give back to society, thankful for the care and communal love he has received growing up. 

If it weren’t the people of Abel’s hometown of Domboshava, it was the trees, serene rivers, and grassy grounds that fulfilled his Ubuntu philosophy of being acknowledged and included in the world. To be a pilot means to be part of a greater sky kingdom out of reach by many; to respect this separate environment that the majority of our population has forgotten to acknowledge and care for.

One wish Abel has is for the people of Hong Kong to acknowledge their surroundings and the people they meet. With the growing African population of Hong Kong standing at 3144 as of 2016 (ref. Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong), a majority experience racism including denial of services at clinics, unacceptable customer service in supermarkets, and lack of academic support in schools. The recent Black Lives Matter movement (2020) has raised awareness across the city in regard to the racial discrimination Africans face in Hong Kong. Its impact is evidently insufficient to halt racism in the city. However, it has led locals to acknowledge the African community in Hong Kong by gestures as simple as a nod. 

“I consider myself a Hong Konger,” Abel comments. “I hope to be treated that way soon.”

Today, Abel awaits to be part of a group he would look forward to every morning. However, he remembers that nature has always been there for him and others. The power of Ubuntu is liberating in which he feels that he matters to someone or something, and if not the people he encounters on the streets, it is the sky, the grounds, and his dream of taking people high up in the sky free from their own individual chains. 

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