UBUNTU “I am because we are” An African perspective on life and leadership

At an October leadership conference in Kansas City, Filimao Chambo from Mozambique, (Ph.D. in biblical studies) presented an African perspective on life as well as leadership.   He suggested that ‘ubuntu,’ a Zulu word for ‘I am because we are,’ – could serve as a theme for uniting individuals and societies.   Given our troubed, divisive times he said, this is especially important, if not essential, for those in authority who would lead us to a better future.

For Chambo, ‘I am because we are,’ is a corrective to the individualism that defines and sometimes undermines leadership and Western culture.   ‘Ubuntu’ teaches that
we are inextricably intertwined and interdependent.

In his book ‘Attuned Leadership: African Humanism as Compass,’ South African businessman Reuel Khoza, translates ‘ubuntu’ as ‘I am because you are, you are because we are,’ meaning that ‘a person is a person because of other people.’ ‘Attuned,’ in his view, describes leaders who are aware of and in harmony with the needs and aspirations of their followers.

Khoza contends that many of us in the Western world live separated and isolated lives influenced among other things by the credo ‘I think therefore I am,’’ from the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes. When everything is stripped away, Descartes contended, we are essentially individual rational beings with no essential connection to one another.

Since listening to Chambo and reading Khosa I am wondering what might change if ‘UbuntuI am because we are’ would guide our lives and our leaders.

We might occasionally unplug from our virtual Facebook ‘friends’ and take time to be with friends with no agenda than just being together.

We might turn from leader/follower dualism to networks of collaboration with multiple connections, each one contributing something to the common good.   We might discover synergism, that with others we are more than the sum of our parts.   We might learn to self-organize around collective leadership with no first among equals.

We might resolve our conflicts respectfully rather than demonizing one another.

We might make more time for multigenerational family events, perhaps in the African tradition of revering our ancestors, remembering that we are more than just biological links in ‘the great chain of being.’

We might find ways to narrow the widening inequality gap dividing the many who are left wanting from the few who have more than they need.

Even congregations, with ‘ubuntu,’ might become communities of compassion and hospitality motivated by a spirituality teaching us that regardless of our divergent faith, ethnic and political traditions we are all children of God’s family.

In Khosa’s view, Nelson Mandela lived and led by ‘ubuntu.’   In spite of the injustice of his imprisonment Mandela offered forgiveness and reconciliation to his adversaries.   Though from a small tribe he inspired a national movement to unite people who knew one another only by their violent divisions.

What might change should ‘ubuntu’ influence our families, our communities, even the nations, as Dr. Chambo envisioned?

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