Ubuntu is a Xhosa word that represents an African concept – we are persons through other persons. I am who I am because you are who you are, and our interactions contribute (or detract) from the other. My quality of life is enriched when you are healthy, when you are employed and your family is around you. But should you succumb to an illness, or you lose your job or your family is at odds, my life is somehow diminished and less complete. Because we are all connected, what happens to others matters to us in a personal way. This reminds me of Paul’s image in the New Testament about us all being part of Christ’s body, and when one part of the body is broken it affects the entire system. Again, we are connected to others in deep ways that impact us.
I just finished reading Desmond Tutu’s most recent book, Made for Goodness. He speaks of ubuntu, not surprising as an African elder who knows his continent’s wisdom deeply. He says, “One consequence of ubuntu is that we recognize that we all need to live our lives in ways that ensure that others may live well. Our flourishing should enhance the lives of others, not detract from them… God’s invitation to wholeness always includes more than ourselves. God’s invitation to wholeness is ubuntu.” He challenges us to live our lives in ways that ensure the livelihood of others. He cautions us that some of our choices could actually harm others, maybe even our friends.
I was thinking of this statement as I thought of our recent time with our Batwa friends in Matara. We worked together, side by side in the cabbage field. We sat together under the canopy of shade and made containers out of banana leaves for the tree farm. We took cotton, fabric, baskets and some string and sewed fireless cookers together. We were making life better for our Batwa friends as we labored alongside them. We were investing in the health of their land and the health of their families. But did we realize that we were also investing in the health of our own families and our own land? Our lives, Texan and Twa, were improving. This is ubuntu.
It is striking to consider Tutu’s final sentence … his claim that our wholeness depends on the wholeness of others. We cannot be complete on our own, we need to recognize our connection to others and seek their wholeness. Doing this improves their life, but also ensure the health of our own. We are only whole when we are all whole. Interesting thought, isn’t it?
Again, think of our Batwa friends in Matara. As the quality of their community improves, somehow your life is enriched in a tangible way. When the cabbage grows, when the kids are doing well in school (and not experiencing any discrimination), when the Batwa are able to engage in community service with their Hutu and Tutsi neighbors… we are better in America. When the trees are planted, mature and eventually provide shade cover and help preserve the rich soil of Matara… we are better in Texas. When the Batwa families all have identity cards and birth certificates, all are legally married and full members of society… we are better in Cypress. When Iribuka grows up with the proper nutrition and can be found running in the green fields alongside her mama… we are better at Community of Faith. We are more whole when they are more whole.
But take it a step further… and think of things that we can do better in Texas to make things better in Matara. How can ‘our flourishing’, as Tutu says, bring them bounty? Are there ways in which we seek to flourish that might actually due them harm? These are questions worth considering, as we understand that in Christ, we are all members of the same body. And part of the mystery of this body is that what happens in Matara matters to Cypress, and what happens in Texas matters to the Batwa friends in Burundi. It is amazing how Christ has connected us in, as the Africans say, ubuntu. And it should challenge us and the choices we make at home.
I loved hearing Martha share how she plans to buy fewer shoes and save more money to contribute to our friends in Matara. That is a very direct expression of ubuntu. I imagine there are some other ways to think of this, too. Think about how the Batwa friends were refusing to use plastic bags in the tree nursery, opting for banana leaves instead. This was a choice to minimize waste in Matara and avoid plastic bags that are not good for the earth. Maybe we can use reusable bags when we go to the market and try to minimize the plastic bags we consume in Cypress, caring for our locality with the same diligence. Maybe we can commit to using less plastic water bottles – remembering that Joel recycles them into pavers in Congo! What if we planted a few trees this year in solidarity with our Matara community, caring for our land as they care for theirs. Trees are the lungs of the earth… we could strengthen them here and there. What if we considered all the energy we use daily, and how we might lower our usage by using eco-friendly bulbs in our lamps and turning off the lights when we leave a room. That is what the fireless cookers are all about – consuming less energy in the daily task of cooking (here it is coal and firewood we are trying to conserve). These are some ways to think of ubuntu, to consider bettering our lives and their lives, knowing that they are doing the same in Matara today!
Ubuntu is like an embrace, realizing we are connected. Let us not forget to hold each other tight as we work to ensure that our flourishing brings our friends benefit. Let us be creative in expressing our solidarity with the Batwa friends we made in Matara. Your coming was just the beginning, how you live is the daily expression of that friendship you embarked on when you first walked (and danced) in Matara!
P.S. The women have their pots with lids and are staring to experiment with the fireless cookers! And the cabbage you helped plant is growing! Goodness continues…