Sense and Nonsense: Ubuntu

Opinion by Aysha Bagchi
April 30, 2010, 12:34 a.m.

Sense and Nonsense: UbuntuUbuntu: I am because you are. It is a South African concept based on the idea that no human being can exist in isolation. To have Ubuntu is to appreciate human interconnectedness, to share in each other’s pains and pleasures by virtue of belonging to a greater human family.


We see this concept in cultures the world over, even in the cyberworld – the free and open source software Ubuntu is named after it. Hinduism has the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, envisioning the world as a global village. One of the dorms at Stanford, Ujamaa, is named after the Swahili word for familyhood, emphasizing that a person becomes a person through her people and community. John Donne, the Christian poet and minister, proclaimed in a sermon that “no man is an island” and that the death of any individual diminishes all members of mankind. Martin Luther King, Jr. once described the human condition as being caught in an “inescapable network of mutuality.”


This idea of interconnectedness can find its strongholds in spiritual and literary traditions around the world. But such talk is no longer reserved for moments when we are reading poetry or discussing faith. Today, it seems to have penetrated into the mainstream in a serious way. Leaders are increasingly speaking of how our existence is connected to the existence of others, justifying good works by the stake we all have in the welfare of our fellow beings.


For example, Bill Clinton often invokes the term Ubuntu in his speeches. He will reference how scientists sequenced the human genome during his presidency, showing that human genetic makeup is 99.9 percent the same. He uses this paradigm to discourage us from concentrating on our differences, arguing that they constitute just one tenth of one percent. Barack Obama made a similar point in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. He reminded us that we are all, as humans, “basically seeking the same things … [hoping] for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.” In this light, he urged for the “continued expansion of our moral imagin