I don’t know where I’ve been all these years; I’d never heard of Ubuntu. I suppose none of us can know everything, of course, but Ubuntu is important -how could I have missed it? It’s message is as simple as it is profound: ‘I am, because you are’. In other words, I have become who I am because I am reflected in you, influenced by you -a variation of you, in fact. And not only ‘you’, but ‘them’ as well. I don’t think it was as clear to me in my beginning years, however.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, wrote the metaphysical Renaissance poet John Donne. And while I was equally struck by his insistence that ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’, I could never quite accept that none of us were islands -I certainly felt like one as I grew up. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ seemed to be a more engaging aphorism to guide me through life. But, as I began to hear the distant reverberation of the bell, and as my leaves began to wither and drop, and also as the shadows of the pandemic closed around the limited circumference my social circle had contained, I began to suspect I had been wrong. Like a dutiful parent, there is always a continent watching and calling from a nearby shore. We are, none of us, alone.
I must confess that I first heard the term ‘Ubuntu’ being explained by James Ugude of the University of Pretoria in a podcast from Australia. It would seem that it is originally a product of African philosophy, although it clearly has universal ramifications -yet another demonstration, if we ever needed one, that wisdom is also ubiquitous.
Of course, as is already no doubt painfully obvious, I lay no claim to knowledge of the tenets of academic philosophy -European or otherwise; I can only watch from the hem. Fortunately, I found a brief consideration of the concept in a short, but clearly argued, essay by Abeba Birhane who, at the time of writing, was a PhD candidate in cognitive science at University College Dublin in the School of Computer Science. https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons
As she explains, ‘According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought… Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues.’
Birhane also makes short work of Descartes: ‘The 17th-century French philosopher believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism.’ Descartes ‘wanted to find a stable point of view from which to look on the world without relying on God-decreed wisdoms; a place from which he could discern the permanent structures beneath the changeable phenomena of nature.’ Hence the cogito rule.
So which is it? Which describes the human condition best: the relational, world-embracing version, or the autonomous, inward-looking one? ‘The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image… Bakhtin believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity… Selfhood and knowledge are evolving and dynamic; the self is never finished – it is an open book… Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.’ I like that.
Unfortunately the proof is perhaps demonstrated by what can happen with solitary confinement in prisons where ‘studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough… Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.’
Literature sometimes serves as that communal mirror for me, and I think it did for my children as well. I remember trying to convince my daughter that the babysitter I’d arranged to take care of her for the evening would be great fun. She might even learn something new from her.
“But daddy,” she pouted, “Cecie always smells funny.”
I wasn’t sure what to say about that. Cecile’s family probably ate different food than we did -or maybe just different seasonings. I rolled my eyes and then smiled at her. “She probably thinks the same thing about you, Cath… Her family probably has a different diet than us, don’t you think?”
She thought about that for a moment. “But she also puts stuff in her stories that are different from yours…”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Like… what kind of stuff?”
“Like…” She stopped to think of an example. “Like some of her fairy stories are about crimnals and end differently from the ones you tell…”
“What crimnals, for example…?” I decided not to correct her word.
“Well… Remember the story of Jack and the Beanstick where he climbs up the plant to a castle and steals stuff from the Giant who lives there…?”
I thought about the story; I just couldn’t ignore her word this time, though. “It’s ‘beanstalk, Cath. But, doesn’t Jack just take back what the giant had stolen from him?”
Cath shook her head as if I’d remembered wrong. “Cecie didn’t say Jack was just getting his own things back, Daddy. She said he was burgalizing…”
“Burglarizing,” I corrected.
“Anyway, she didn’t think Jack should have taken anything without asking.” She twinkled her eyes mischievously. “Especially the golden goose, right? That wasn’t Jack’s, was it?”
She crossed her little arms over her chest and stared at me suspiciously. “Cecie said that her mommy told her it was wrong, too…”
I sighed inwardly. Cecile probably had a point -I hadn’t thought about it like that. “I suppose you’re right, sweetheart,” I said, reaching over and kissing the top of her head. “I’ll make sure I tell it differently the next time, okay?”
She nodded, all smiles again. “I’ll let Cecie know.”
It really does take a village to raise a child…