The Conversion of Ubuntu – an African vision of human nature



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The Conversion of Ubuntuan African vision of human nature

The late Rev. Dr. Kwame Bediako viewed the task of fulfilling the Great Commission as ‘the conversion of cultures’. This is not simply adding up the numbers of individuals who come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Nor is it the adding to our lifestyles, old habits, attitudes and fears, a veneer of regulations and traditions borrowed from outside which do not answer to our deepest needs. That is indoctrination or proselytization. Fulfilling the Great Commission is more profound than that. Rather ‘it is the turning to Christ all that He finds in us when He meets us, asking that He cleanse, purify, sanctify us and all that we are, eliminating what he considers incompatible with Him’. In this sense the Great Commission is about ‘discipling whole nations’. One such part of who we are is Ubuntu.



Ubuntu or Ubuntunse is a Bantu ontological noun describing what it means to be a member of humankind. Before the advent of white people in black Africa, the term referred only to black people, but retrospectively it now applies to all human beings. In relation to any one person, Ubuntu indicates the presence in one’s life of such human characteristics as kindness, charity and love of one’s neighbour. Ubuntu describes humans as created by God. There is no independent existence without the creative act of God. Just about all African myths of creation clearly indicate the link between humans and God as their creator and provider of what was needed to sustain life. And yet the universe, including God, is there to explain the fact of Umuntu at the centre of creation. God, although clearly acknowledged as the creator, is nevertheless not the centre of creation. Human beings fill the pride of place and God is imported as it were to explain the origins of Abantu (people). The African ‘ontology is basically anthropocentric: God is the explanation of man’s origin and sustenance; it is as if God exists for the sake of man’ (Mbiti 1969:92). Similarly the environment, nature, exists for the benefit of humans and their well being. In fact even the so called African Traditional Religions are not religions in the classic European sense of the word but the description of the religious acts of Abantu whose object may or may not be God.

Remarkably, there appears to be almost universal evidence (Mbiti 1969:97-98) of an understanding of a rift between God and human beings which led to the prevalence of death, loss of happiness, peace and immortality. Characteristically, the explanation is always given in terms of what people did to annoy God and cause him to withdraw from human society; they disobeyed his word, some accident occurred or there was a division between heaven and earth. There is however, a conspicuous lack of even a hint of a reversal of the tragedy of the separation between God and his creatures. There is no hint of salvation or utopia in some distant future. “This remains the most serious cul-de-sac in the otherwise rich thought and sensitive and religious feelings of our peoples. It is perhaps here then, that we find the greatest weakness and poverty of our traditional religions compared to world religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism” (Mbiti 1969:99).

There are three distinct categories in creation apart from God himself: the realm of the spirits, Ubuntunse including most but not all human beings (to be human one must not only demonstrate physical but especially certain immaterial attributes as well) and the animal world. Ubuntu is distinguished from ‘Ifintu’ (things – a category which includes the animal creation) by the fact that humanity is the primary focus of God and that humans share in God’s divine nature through the gifts of creativity and intelligence. These two qualities are signs of Godlikeness. Humans and animals have some common features such as the possession of a body, the requirement to replenish food, drink, find protection in shelter, seek security and bring forth young. It is also reckoned that endemic aggression, whether expressed in verbal cantankerous argumentativeness, or physical brutality or chronic self-centredness, indicate a loss of basic humaneness and a descent into animalistic behaviour. One of the worst things or insults said about a person is that they are no more than ‘an animal of the forest lacking even the basic human intelligence such as is required to walk straight’.

A human being is bound in a body, has life (breath), is spirit, and possesses ubumi – strength or vitality or life force. This life force is more than just brute force; it is a sharing in the creative nature of God and therefore having the ability to originate things, to dominate the lower creation and to influence causes not in the same way that God creates, dominates and influences but in a derivative sense as befits one created by a higher and fuller force (Tempels 1969:97). Human beings are able to both grow and diminish in their possession of this vital force and therefore become more human as through procreation and especially accession to either chieftainship or to any of the special functionaries who stand between human life and the world of the spirits. You can see already that childlessness is a diminution of this vital force and in general a diminution of one’s status in society. A childless person will not be given normal respect in society and on his or her death; rituals will be done to prevent that person’s spirit from returning to perpetuate childlessness in the society. This is so important that a childless marriage will invariably come under a lot of pressure to dissolve because it is not adding any value to either the people so married or the society in which they live. Single young women are also under inordinate pressure to conceive and bear children even outside marriage. People aspire to greater and greater heights of Ubuntu through this life force gained through certain passages of life like circumcision, procreation, accession to positions of traditional leadership through which there appears to be a secretion of spiritual powers which raise the affected person higher on in the hierarchy of beings in the community. Such new powers lead to increased status and almost invariably to new names.

All this is possible because of the tenacious belief that all life comes from God, himself a spirit being. In the basic cosmology, apart from God, there are spiritual powers invisible to humans who affect our lives. There are also some people have the ability to tap into the spirit world and derive power from that realm to affect, for good or ill, what goes on here on in the material life. From this follows the belief that one’s life force is most greatly increased and enhanced and one’s status in the community is raised above other ordinary people if one is able to command such powers. Spirit possession is one of the commonest ways to attain such powers and knowledge. Along with spirit possession is the whole area of magic and the ability to manipulate the spiritual powers for one’s benefit. The powers acquired through spirit possession and magic can be used either for benevolent or malevolent ends affecting both individuals within the community and even the whole community at large. Such power can be used to protect people, cattle, houses, possessions or to harm them. The rain maker may bring rain; the diviner may give knowledge regarding an illness or a death. The medicine practitioner may give charms to woo a loved one or keep a husband at home and prevent his straying into sexual liaisons apart from his wife. The darker side of these practises are always feared and disapproved of and always practised secretly (Gehman 1989:68).

Other Ubuntu qualities include the possession of a heart; the fountain of feelings, intelligence and speech. These qualities set humans apart form the animal creation. It is these qualities that survive death and move on to become the living dead in what Mbiti calls Zamani, the long past stretching almost into a lost eternity in which spirits of the dead exist until there is no one left on earth who remembers them. At that time then they cease to exist in any real sense, instead they join the vast hordes of divinities that are more powerful than ancestral spirits; the living dead. But while there are people who remember them, they are thought to exist without the body as the living dead and they participate in the life of the community in a variety of ways. Sometimes the living dead come back to life in a physical sense in the life of a new child who bears their name or they may be inherited by a relative of the same sex through whom they continue to exert influence upon the family and or community. This incidentally is why it is paramount that we have large families so that there will always be a big pool of labour for obvious economic reasons as well a great number of people who will perpetuate eternity for the living dead through memory. “…this large family could preserve more effectively the memory and names of the departed ancestors and relatives, since it is believed that with more numbers there is a corresponding increase in the ability and potential for the immortality of the family members” (Mnyandu 1997:79). There are two categories for the living dead; Imipashi, the good spirits, and ifiwa the evil or bad spirits. The former are good and benevolent spirits. They died a happy death and were well looked after even in death. They use their new spiritual powers to bless those left in the material world. But those spirits of people who left the land of the living with some grievances, have scores to settle and they return only to inflict danger upon those for whom they hold a grudge (Richards 1956:29).



What then is authentic humanity? What are its characteristics? Mnyandu (1997:80-81) suggests that Ubuntu is not a pure concept in the philosophical sense but is exhibited through communal action into which other members of the family and community participate. Immediately this indicates the Bantu aversion to individualism, which elevates the individual above the rest of the society. There is a paradox here in that each person is clearly recognised as an individual; even a child is so regarded. That is why giving of names is so important, especially the so called ‘name of the belly button’ or as Tempels calls it the name of the ‘interior’ (Tempels 1969:108). However, the individual is a part of the community and is most fully Umuntu in having and fulfilling his or her part within the hierarchy of the community and the commonwealth of the spirits of the dead ancestors. So any work that is undertaken is a sphere for communal participation and therefore the benefits too are to be shared by all, not just those who might have undertaken a part in the success of the work but also other members of the community. This communal orientation is seen from the qualities that are regarded as typically arising from one who is truly Umuntu. These include caring, humility, thoughtful, considerate, understanding, wise, godly, generous, hospitable, mature, virtuous and blessed (Mnyandu 1997:80). The overriding quality is virtue, which is defined as the practice of giving of oneself to the promotion of the good of the community. All these virtues or values are oriented towards others except for the last one, blessed. To be blessed suggests that one is the object of such an act. God blesses, spirits bless and older people too will bless the young often using the spoken word and sometimes accompanied by the ritual use of spittle. Being blessed in this sense almost completely corresponds to the biblical concept shalom, which is used in many Psalms and immortalised in the famous words of Jesus in Matthew 5. As in biblical usage, Ubuntu is essentially something God bequeaths to a person or people. In order to fully express such a gift, the possessor will need the training of the community in virtue so that good deeds and the treatment of other people as Abantu will naturally be self evident. All the other virtues are expressive of action that one takes in favour of others. Selfishness is not a part of being Umuntu. One must share what one has with others and especially the members of one’s family, clan, tribe and friends. This wider circle of acquaintances and family is at the same time both inclusive and extremely exclusive. People who fall outside these circles are not entitled to such caring, hospitality and generosity. This causes problems for the development of true fellowship in Churches which have a wider following beyond the bounds of any one tribe. It is probably also true to say that the relative poverty of the Church in the many African situations does not correspond to the lack of material wealth necessarily, but to the fact that the Church and the members and activities promoted within that community do not fall within the circle of family, clan, tribe and friends. It is difficult to explain how such a generous and hospitable people can fail to exercise the same qualities in the Church.

So along with virtue, there are two other overriding qualities of Ubuntu: these include on the one hand community and one’s complete integration into it, and on the other hand what Tempels calls the ‘vital force’, ubumi, and the means by which such vital force is increased to make the possessor more powerful. Ubumi, i.e. vital force, strength or energy is a basic ingredient in what it means to be Umuntu. Indeed Tempels regards this as the ‘key principle’ in what the Bantu mean when they refer to umuntu (Tempels 1969:175).

The Primacy of Community

It is difficult to overemphasise the importance and primacy of the community over the individual. “Ubuntu is not merely positive human virtues [such as caring, peace loving, peacemaking, generous, etc] but the very human essence itself, which lures and enables human beings to become Abantu or humanised beings, living in daily self expressive works of love and efforts to create harmonious relationships in the community and the world beyond” (Mnyandu 1997:81).



The prominence or primacy of community does not mean that individuality is abhorred or obliterated. We have already seen that each person is given a name that is peculiar to that person. Great care is taken to choose the name, either through dreams, the dreams of the expectant mother, or by divination. The name has to be right (there have been cases of names being changed in early infancy because the inordinate crying of a child was seen to indicate that the ancestors had rejected the name that had been given) because it is not just an identity tag but identifies the bearer either with an ancestor or parents hopes or aspiration for the future or indeed description for the present circumstances. A Burundian man named his son Mbazumutima. The name is a combination of two words; the first mbazu an instruction to think hard, while mutima is the word for heart (like the biblical usage includes the will, emotions and intellect). The times when this child was born were those when an unacceptably high number of educated people in Burundi were being eliminated in ethnic cleansing. And so every parent needed to think twice before sending a child to school. Such action could easily be a death sentence upon a child! This name would always remind the father to think twice before sending his son to school! But individuals do not live in a vacuum. They are really only true Abantu when they express ubuntu in society. The Bemba say, Umuntu ekala na Bantu: uwikala ne nama akaliwa (a person – Umuntu - lives – ekala - with people – na bantu: he who lives – uwikala - with animals – ne nama - will be eaten – akaliwa -). We notice that the two alternatives for living are either among people or away from people among the wild animals of the forest. To call a person Umuntu is immediately to associate that person with Abantu, the plural of Umuntu, in community. Only among other people will a person find security and completeness. The scriptures too recognise the importance of community when God said of Adam, the lone human creature, ‘It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him’ (Genesis 2:18). It is unfortunate that this verse is almost solely associated with marriage ceremonies. Accordingly it seems to suggest that a person is not fully human unless they get married, that it is not good for single people to remain single. This is patently not true for even the Lord Jesus himself remained single through out his earthly life. The accent in these words in Genesis 2:18 falls on the inappropriateness of being alone without community and secondly that males and female are complementary (Kidner 1967:65-66). Atkinson takes this statement as expressing a fundamental truth about what it is to be human, i.e. we are made for fellowship with other human beings. He further says that “One of the disastrous consequences of the Enlightenment philosophy – was the concentration on the individual as the centre of rational self-consciousness. The end of that road is the misery of the Me-generation” (Atkinson 1990:68). What he is pointing out is the failure of the Cartesian dualism which has led to the isolation of the individual and the separation of facts from values, mind and body, reason and emotion, subject and object and consequently, communion between beings whether horizontally or vertically has become a casualty. Community is fragmented and fractured so that even when people share the same roof, they have very little to do with each other in their lives. Neighbourhoods are generally a collection of houses inhabited by people who do not know each other and care little for one another. Human beings were made for community and true ubuntu is only possible among abantu.

The process of incorporation or enculturation into the community is achieved by both the natural parent / child relationship by which the new born imbibes the values of the mother but also by training such as young men and women receive either through participation in community life activities or the ceremonies of circumcision and puberty and any other teaching opportunities linked with the major passages through life. The process of humanisation itself includes language acquisition. Umuntu needs to be able to express himself. A person who is unable to speak is at a great disadvantage in society and every effort is made to find other ways of communicating with them including especially lip reading and rudimentary sign language. A true muntu need also to acquire ‘amano’. The word is variously translated as brains, although not in the physical sense but intelligence, wit, common sense, wisdom and especially the ability to use one’s mind to get out of any seemingly insurmountable situations. Amano is sometimes an innate quality but rarely so. In general people acquire ‘amano’ from others. Several proverbs of the Bemba illustrate this: Amano: mambulwa (literally: amano – wisdom – mambulwa – got from otherstherefore ask others when in doubt, it is safer to inquire from others in order to have the wisdom to accomplish a task), amano: ni mbuto bala lobola (amano – wisdom - wisdom is like ni mbuto - good seed, balalobola - people seek for it wherever it may be found), amano: manika (amano - wisdom is like - manika - meadows by the river – it spreads on both sides of the river. A matter must be thoroughly explored in all its aspects), amano: yafuma mwifwasa yaingila mu culu (amano - wisdom yafuma - comes out of a - mwifwasa - small anthill and - yaingila - enters into a - mu culu - massive anthill – even children are sources of wisdom). It is imperative that we seek wisdom from all the sources where it may be found. However amano must conform to the values of the community. So amano yabuweka: tayashingauka ikoshi (aman - wisdom - yabuweka - of your own - tayashingauka - will not go round – ikoshi - your neck – on your own you do not have what it takes to go far. Compare the English proverb, two heads are better than one, or the biblical saying ‘a cord of three strands is not easily broken, etc), uutwala pa nsaka: tonoula (uutwala - he who takes [it] to the nsaka [gathering place for the men] - tonoula - will not destroy – one who takes his problem to the others will surely find wisdom to prevent acting in destructive ways). So language acquisition is important at least for the purpose of gaining wisdom without which it is difficult to live life fully as a human.



Young people are also socialised through initiation ceremonies and puberty rites like circumcision. Girls who are put through initiation ceremonies after the onset of puberty enter the ceremony as young, ignorant and innocent what Richards (1956:125) calls ‘a calm but unproductive girlhood’, but they emerge as women into a ‘dangerous but fertile womanhood’; thus they are now deemed to be fully grown and completely socialised into their society. Some fundamental change is deemed to have occurred in their ‘vital force’, they are prepared for marriage and the rigours that will bring both in terms of sexual intercourse as well as the responsibilities of a woman in keeping the home in order to avoid criticism of her family. The ceremony itself is an elaborate affair which can last as long as a month includes separation and isolation from the community, learning the different types of symbols and a ‘secret’ language of married life, acquisition of acceptable social attitudes to marriage, hard work, proper submission of the girl to her husband, the distribution of food to the family, the relation between a brother and his sister, etc. Nelson Mandela describes his initiation into manhood as taking the ‘essential step in life’. He was now ready to take on the whole world, to ‘marry, set up home and plough my own field. I could now be admitted to the councils of the community; my words would be taken seriously’ (Mandela 1994:33). During a typical Zulu initiation ceremony, the initiate is stripped naked along with his companions symbolising transparency to the community, humility, openness and receptivity to the customs and guidance of the elders so as to be properly clothed, nourished and enlightened into the hidden mysteries of Zulu life.

Ubuntu has been given a public role especially in the Desmond Tutu-led Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which sought to establish the truth surrounding the circumstances of the deaths of all who died during the struggle for independence in Apartheid South. Truth and forgiveness were the goals not exacting revenge. Sworn enemies confronted each other and laid their murky pasts to rest. It may still be too early to determine the real impact of the TRC, and therefore Ubuntu, on South African society. But the fact is significant that the black African leadership of South Africa has not sought to exact violent revenge on their Apartheid enemies. But if Ubuntu is such a potent tool in the hands of African peacemakers like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, how do we explain explosions of black on black violence such as was witnessed in KwaZulu Natal, not to mention other areas of Africa such as the Great Lakes area of Burundi / Rwanda? But perhaps this can be explained by appealing to the concept of priority of relatives and clansmen and women. Some of the qualities of Ubuntu are universal although they may have particular importance in African communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

A Christian Critique of Ubuntu

Following Justin Martyr’s methodology we must use the Scriptures as the lens through which we critique Ubuntu theology. To use Kwame Bediako’s statement above that Ubuntu must be converted and brought under the Lordship of Christ, what would this project look like?



What we must reject from Ubuntu

From a Christian point of view we must reject the anthropocentric nature of Ubuntu. While we accept the primacy of human beings in nature we must however reject the notion that God and nature are brought in to explain the existence of human beings and are there sorely for the benefit of the human race. We need to establish the Sovereignty of God in the universe.

We must also reject the hostility that is created by priority of relatives. Whilst accepting the importance in society of families, extended families, clans, tribes and nations, we must nevertheless accept the foreigner as a fellow human being and refuse to accept that anyone who is not one of ours by biological determination is therefore not part of us. The human race is one and Ubuntu must embrace that fact.

What we must reinforce in Ubuntu

Ubuntu has a great sense of the community. The fact of being a man or woman only makes sense in the context of the whole community and society. Although personal even individual agency is recognized and encouraged the results of such agency and especially the benefits, are not personalised in a greedy and acquisitive fashion; the benefits are to be shared by the whole community. Ubuntu has the potential to create good egalitarian communities where all human beings are valued and valuable and cared for and care for others.



What we must add to Ubuntu

As Mbiti points out it is the lack of any sense of utopia or salvation that is a glaring omission from this world view. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the dying Messiah must be imported to fill that gap. The work on Christology is therefore significant but must recognize that there are no ready made African Ubuntu categories that will fit hand in glove the role of the Messiah in history. It was not possible to do it in Judaism; it is not likely to happen in African Ubuntu.



Bibliography

Bediako K (1997), “Africa in World Christianity in the 21st Century: A Vision of the African Christian Future” – a paper presented at the gathering of the African Theological Fellowship in September 1997 at the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre, Akropong-Akuapem, Ghana.


Gehman R 1999, Who are the Living Dead? Evangel Publishing House, Nairobi
Mbiti J S 1969 , African Religions and Philosophy, Heinemann, London

Mnyandu M 1997, “Ubuntu as the basis of authentic humanity: An African perspective”, in Journal of Constructive Theology, Vol. 3, No.1


Richards A I 1956, Chisungu, Routledge, London UK
Tempels P 1969, Bantu Philosophy, Presence Africaine, Paris, France






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