For some time my company has employed a good number of refugees including many Africans, mostly Sudanese. When we first started hiring these people, I figured it was a good idea to study up on their customs, norms, and history to be able to better connect with them on a personal level. I feel incredibly richer as a result.

Imagine how my new Liberian friends felt when I wished them Happy Independence Day on July 26th. Or the fun my musician friend from Uganda had at my expense, as I struggled to learn a song in Lugandan so I could sing a harmony part with him. Judging from his laughter, I think I was singing something like “you smell like a water buffalo” before he got me straightened out. Wasn’t easy.

My real learning began when one of my Sudanese friends introduced me to Ubuntu. We were talking about the importance of teamwork and what it meant to be a real team. He listened intently, then said simply “you are talking about Ubuntu. What other way is there?” He was right. Ubuntu is perhaps the purest expression of true community at the cultural norm level, and could be a powerful expression of teamwork in the workplace.

Ubuntu (pronounced “oo-BOON-too”) is an African word that comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. The concept of Ubuntu does not translate easily into English, but it is best summed up as the philosophy that people can only find fulfillment through meaningful interactions with other people.

Ubuntu is considered one of the founding principles of the post-apartheid republic of South Africa and is a key ideal of the African Renaissance. It isn’t a stretch to consider Ubuntu as a philosophy driven by the Mother of All Callings—to strive for a true spirit of community that spans race and creed to achieve a common purpose.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language …It is to say ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…

A rough translation of the principle of Ubuntu is “humanity towards others”. Another is “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”. One story characterizes Ubuntu with this sentiment: how can I be happy if others are not?

You can’t help but think differently after understanding Ubuntu. There are some great Ubuntu resources, so many it’s hard to choose. Here’s a great start: The Tutu Foundation.

(excerpted from ch6 Where Do We Go From Here? One Pond, One Pebble c 2014 Craig Althof)


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