Ubuntu, the African practice of generosity and community

sduncan post on February 22nd, 2016
Posted in Africa

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


Works Cited

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


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