Ubuntu is a Xhosa word which serves as the spiritual foundation of African societies. It basically means what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. It articulates a basic understanding, caring, respect and compassion for others. Ubuntu is a belief in a universal bond of sharing that unites all of humanity – the conviction that no person can be truly full while his neighbor remains hungry. It represents a world-view that sees humanity as a web of family, rather than a mass of individuals.
This philosophy affirms that a person is a person through other people, that we are all related, interdependent and connected to each other. This is similar to what we know as compassion, compassion for ourselves, our families, our community, the global community and the earth.
When did you first became aware of it?
In 1981 and 1982, when I worked in Kwandbele. In those days during apartheid, Kwandbele was a “homeland” where the government forced blacks of the Kwandbele tribe to live. I was working as a Physician there and when I went driving into the rural areas to get to the various clinics. Even though I was a white man they didn’t know, I was never seen as a symbol of white oppression in spite of the suffering these people were undergoing because of the apartheid system. Wherever we would stop along the way, people would invite me into their homes for a meal even if they had hardly anything. Whatever they had, they would offer to share with me.
How do you think the practice of Ubuntu effects one’s health?
I think we all tend to get caught up with our own “dramas” which keeps us in our heads and takes up a lot of energy. When we stop focusing on ourselves and when we are sharing or being compassionate to others, we let go of a lot of unnecessary anxiety about our own dilemmas. So we often actually receive more than we give. It is a selfish thing, but if you want to feel better, helping others will probably help you as much if not more than whoever you are helping. Giving without receiving or expecting anything in return is extremely uplifting. I believe what it does physiologically to you is the opposite of the stress response, it stimulates the parasympathetic system. But also when one sees how others are living and they are happy even when they have nothing or very little materially, it often shifts one’s perspective on life and what’s important and how you feel. And often when people learn to give or start volunteering and caring for others, they in turn learn then to care for themselves as well. For many giving to others is easier than giving love to themselves, so it can help people learn self love.
Can you think of any patients whose health improved via Ubuntu?
Yes, I once had a patient who was exhausted, burnt out and unhappy even though she was very successful. I had tried dietary changes, supplements, all the tricks I have in my bag. Nothing was really helping, so eventually, exasperated, I suggested she quit her job and go to Africa (sort of as a joke). I never heard from her after that visit and then I got a call 6 months later from her telling me she followed my instructions, went to Africa, fell in love with the people and was now working for a non profit doing work in Africa. And she was feeling fantastic. I have seen it a number of times, people giving up their high powered jobs, switching to something more meaningful and not feeling Spent anymore. I would guess it is quite common.
What do you recommend for someone to kindle in them a sense of Ubuntu?
Find something that is meaningful to you, that you can connect with. It needs to be more than just giving money….which is nice but impersonal. When you connect with the person or persons you are giving to, it is probably the best thing you can do for your health. Partly, I think this is because what has happened in our culture today, many of us feel isolated. Whereas in Africa, there is still community, extended families, people feel less isolated, the support systems are usually better. I think what happens is we are so busy trying to survive in this crazy hectic world, we don’t have time to serve others or give back because of time constraints. But it is in our nature, everyone wants to give, we have just been numbed by our culture. That’s why if you look at most “slower” societies, there is more Ubuntu. So I would say, it is in our nature, it is a part of us, let it out.