‘Is Ubuntu the key to happiness?’ asked the Daily Mail recently. Ben Cohen investigates a centuries-old southern African word that has a powerful message for our lives in the UK.
These days you can’t set foot in a bookshop without seeing another book about how you can live a better, happier, more fulfilled life. There are exotic sounding words like Hygge (a Danish word that means ‘a feeling of comfort and cosiness’) and Lagom (from Sweden, meaning ‘living with just enough’), but now there’s another word, and way of life, to learn about:
It’s the subject of a new book Everyday Ubuntu by Mungi Ngomane, granddaughter of South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It gained attention when Prince Harry and Megan Markle championed both the book and the concept of ubuntu on their visit to South Africa recently.
It’s a bit different to Lagom and Hygge though. For one thing, Ubuntu is from Africa and not Scandinavia – it’s a term that’s been familiar across Africa for generations.
Secondly, this isn’t just ‘self-improvement’. That’s because Ubuntu isn’t just about ‘me’, it’s about ‘us’.
‘Ubuntu teaches us to look outside ourselves to find answers,’ says Mungi Ngomane, author of Everyday Ubuntu. ‘Ubuntu is a way of living that is based on the idea that all humans are of infinite worth and value.’
Put in its simplest form: ‘I am only because you are’.
This attitude of community and togetherness has been part of Tearfund’s work around the world since we started.
Self-improvement without the ‘self’
‘I don't think individualism is bad,’ says Mungi, who currently lives in the States. ‘However, I think the rugged individualism we currently treasure can actually be harmful. We now spend money seeing therapists and trying out all these new wellness fads, partly to compensate for the fact that we aren’t comfortable leaning on our friends and families.’
Everyday Ubuntu is crammed with examples of the concept in action. She cites Ubuntu as the philosophy that made South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission possible.
Another example Mungi gives is the life of Christophe Mbonyingabo. Christophe is one of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals – men and women working to radically change their communities. Christophe has been modelling ubuntu for many years, as he brings reconciliation between the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi, following the 1994 genocide.
Ubuntu isn’t just for the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Christophe though, says Mungi:
‘It's not restrictive, it's just a challenge to do and be better each day. If you fail one day, then start over the next. It's about giving yourself and others the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming you know best. When I give people the benefit of the doubt, they're more likely to do the same.’
14 ways to practice Ubuntu
- See yourself in other people. Recognise that we are all human beings (we’re not all the same and that’s okay!)
- Strength lies in unity. There is help out there if you look for it.
- Put yourself in the shoes of others. There’s much to gain from seeing someone else’s point of view.
- Choose to see the wider perspective. Nothing in life is black and white.
- Have dignity and respect for yourself and others. If you refuse to show others dignity then you also lose some for yourself.
- Believe in the good of everyone. If you look for it, you’ll find it.
- Choose hope over optimism. A hopeful nature is a wonderful gift.
- Seek out ways to connect. The more connected you are to others, the happier you will feel.
- The power of the F-word: forgiveness. Forgiving relieves a burden on yourself and on others.
- Embrace our diversity. Draw on the strengths of our differences and leave all judgement behind.
- Acknowledge reality. Accept where you are now, in order to get where you want to be in the future.
- Find humour in our humanity. Being able to laugh during the worst of times lifts our spirits.
- Little things make a big difference. You matter. The way you choose to live your life matters.
- Learn to listen so that you can hear. Good communication is the basis of making the strong connections we all need to thrive.
Read through the list above again and pause after each one to reflect on what this would look like in your own life. As things come to mind, commit them to God and spend time listening to him. You may find it helpful to write things down.
Everyday Ubuntu is published by Penguin Random House.