by Rani Glick
Exploring the many cultures around the topic of Global Giving, I began researching the cultures of
African, a region of the world I know little about yet concerned with its current cultural and political
struggles. I discovered Ubuntu, the humanist philosophy of generosity and community.
The African people have a long time history of philanthropy that is deep-rooted in mutual support
through the family network and at the community level. This tradition stems from the belief that the
society was founded on dialogue (oral storytelling) and reciprocity. In pre-colonial times, a celebrated
ancestor was defined by the larger number of its descendants rather than its achievements. Affluence
was the collective kinship of the group comprised of individuals from the wealthy to the poor. This was
based on acquiring labour to cultivate the land and where individuals took care of each other i.e.
refugee took care of the poor, marriages were exchanges of property around giving and political
allegiances or widowed women were supported by their husband’s families or travelled to other
communities through the women’s network.
A person cannot exist as a full human being in isolation. A Xhosa proverb says “a person is a person
through persons.” Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever
happens to the whole group happens to the individual.” This quality is known as Ubuntu. Compared to
the western perspective of ” the inner self” or” the individual’s” responsibility to the larger society.
Great African leaders have referred to Ubuntu as an “inspiring symbol of tolerance and humanity. It is a
way of life that underpins the concept of an open society”. Former president of South Africa, Nelson
Mandela describes Ubunto as, “A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have
to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect
of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich
themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around
you to be able to improve? “
Ubuntu is rooted in the Bantu language where interpretation varies in different regions. In Tanzania,
“obunto” refers to human characteristics of generosity, In Kenya , “utu” was the central philosophy
where everything was done for the benefit of the community, In Botswana, “botho” means “a person is
a person through others” is one of the country’s five national principals.
Today, some African social scientists believe that the individual’s dependence on community has limited
their ability to take control over their destiny and contribute to the larger society. Africans have become
too dependent on the community to provide and in some incidences on foreign aid.
Efforts are being made today to reenergize these traditions by encouraging regions of African that have
strong economic growth to establish philanthropic institutions to sustain African initiatives in their
African Culture & Personality, Bad Social Science, Effective Social Activism or a call to reinvent Ethnology
African Studies Quarterly, James Lassiter
Reciprocity and Assistance in Pre-Colonial Africa,, Steven Feierman, Philanthropy in the world’s
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_(philosophy)#Definition. (see video with host Jim Modise)
Trust Africa website