Ubuntu - I am because you are

Sunset storm over Niger

Who are you? If we were asked this, we might respond by telling them our name, what we do for a living, what we like to do at the weekends. We would tell them things that distinguished us from other people. We would define ourselves by a list of “I” sentences – “I am a student”, “I like running”, “I play guitar”. 

Essentially, we are trying to say: “I am me”.

John Donne, the 17th Century English poet, famously wrote: “No man is an island”. (Hugh Grant also says it in “About a Boy”.) No one can exist in isolation; we are made to be relational, social creatures. This is summed up nicely in the African notion of “ubuntu”, which translates into English as “I am because you are”.

Let’s think about that for a moment. 

Who am I? 

I am because you are. 

I exist as myself, as a person, only in as much as you exist as yourself, another person.

Ubuntu says that our humanity is found in relation to one another. Christian Aid’s Head of Africa, Karimi Kinoti, describes ubuntu as meaning that “we experience our humanness in relation to God, to each other and to nature”. Our very identity is bound up in our bond with one another. This means that we are all inextricably linked. We are all family – in a very real way.

What would it look like, to live as if the whole human race were one family? 

John Donne’s poem continues: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

To me, this says that speaking out for the oppressed and caring for those who are suffering – in my local neighbourhood as well as on the other side of the world – isn’t just a moral imperative; it is essential to my very identity as a human being. It brings home the fact that any one of us could have been poor; any one of us powerful – if we had only been born in a different place.

There is no them and us; there is only “we”.

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