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SIDIC Periodical XXXVI - 2003/1-3
Seeking A Culture Of Dialogue (Pages 11-15)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Seeking a Culture of Dialogue in Africa: The Meaning and Influence of Ubuntu
Kasonga, wa Kasonga


Talk given during the Jewish-Christian Consultation in French-speaking Africa, which was organized in Yaunde, November 8-13, 2001, by the COE Office for Interfaith Relations and the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations (IJCIC).


Within the context of reflection on Jewish-Christian dialogue, which has long been recommended by the Ecumenical Council of Churches (ECC) and which in our day is a requirement, I was asked to look at the concept of Ubuntu.

As limited as it may be, it is my task to draw out its deep meaning as well as its influence, in view of enriching this dialogue in a correct way from the African point of view.
This reflection will find expression around a few points. First of all, I shall give a definition of ubuntu. The point at hand is to see how this concept is understood, above all in certain cultures in the south of the African continent. Then I shall examine the concept of ubuntu in relation to that of muoyo, which means life. This analysis, which will bring us to other cultures within the Bantu family, will enable us to appreciate the fact that ubuntu is better understood when it is seen in the context of shared life. Finally, I will go on to compare muoyo with ntu to show how important is the link which exists between humanity and the rest of creation. Finally, the conclusion will show how the rules of ubuntu, which are nothing other than the rules of life (muoyo), are scorned, violated and neglected today, which creates centers of conflict in our societies.

Ubuntu : a definition

In an article entitled « Ubuntu and Democracy », Mahamba(1) gave a definition of the concept of ubuntu which will be our starting point. The term comes from the Zulu language. In Setswana, it is translated as botho. In his own language, Venda, it means vhuthu. Mahamba is right when he says that understanding this concept is not only a language problem, but also a cultural one. Whether it is a problem of language or of culture, it is true that the essential remains the same. He wrote the following :

« Botho means our humanity ; it includes everything that makes us human. Botho is essentially that which distinguishes human beings from the animal kingdom. But it means a little more than that […]. In the spirit of ubuntu or of botho, a person is supposed to play his/her own part in the community. Individual behavior is judged in relationship to what the community expects and demands as being correct. To describe someone, for example, by saying that « Mpho has ubuntu, » does not say enough. However, in reality that means everything. The person who hears such a word understands quickly that Mpho is a man full of love and he lives in such a way as to fulfill his social obligations. Mpho is aware not only of his personal rights, but also of his duties towards his neighbors. In other words, when someone says, « Neo ga se motho » (Neo does not have botho), that means that Neo is without doubt an unsociable person, he has a personality that is centered on himself. »(2)

When Mahamba applies his understanding of ubuntu to the way democracy is understood, he mentions values such as justice, truth, respect, honesty as well as equality as being its essential ingredients. According to him, without all of these values, it is not possible to have a democratic society.
Let us look at a practical case. Another author, Mandla Gamede,(3)gives an appreciation of the concept of ubuntu by looking at a community activity which is of great humanitarian importance. We are dealing with an analysis of the meaning of Ziklife, a phenomenon which is both cultural and economic, since its goal is to alleviate the burden of financial constraints in the burial practices. Some citizens living in a sector of Johannesburg(4) wanted to find a solution to the funeral practices which were enormously expensive for them. Their action was based on respect for the human person, on ubuntu. By getting together in a kind of funeral cooperative, they wanted to exercise their understanding of humanity, their ubuntu, where the dead were concerned and also where their living compatriots were concerned, who shared the same love. In doing so, they succeeded in making the burial ceremonies less expensive and available to everyone. Now, Ziklife is a ministry that functions under the umbrella of the Methodist Church, rather than being an economic activity. Respect for human dignity, the practice of love, the alleviation of the burden of economic constraints due to expensive burials, the demonstration of solidarity, all this makes up the deep meaning of ubuntu.

In an article entitled “What Apartheid Has Done to the African Family and Community and How the Present Situation Can be Transformed,”(5) Stanley Mogoba invites South African society to face the challenge of reviving the meaning of the human, of ubuntu, in order to succeed in mending the damage caused by the effects of Apartheid. He wrote the following:

“The biggest challenge for South Africa is how we must change the hearts of people. We must teach them how to accept one another and how to live together in harmony. We must change the superiority and inferiority complexes. We must make our dehumanized people human – the Whites as well as the Blacks. We have to revivify the consciousness of the Blacks, the consciousness of the Whites and the national consciousness. By that, I mean the sense of being human and of being proud of that. No exclusivism, but the affirmation of self and mutual affirmation.

We need to revivify the UBUNTU.
(And Mogoba continues:)
An author described the Ubuntu in these terms:
UBUNTU is to love and to care for the others
UBUNTU is to act kindly towards the others
UBUNTU is to be welcoming
UBUNTU is to be just and understanding
UBUNTU is to be full of compassion
UBUNTU is to assist those who are in distress
UBUNTU is to be straightforward and honest
UBUNTU is to have good manners
A country which practices Ubuntu is, on earth, closer to the Kingdom of God.”

Ubuntu and Muoyo

In order to give a good outline of the range of the concept of ubuntu, I must refer to my own culture. The word ubuntu comes from the family of Bantu languages and means “humanity” or “the fact of being human”. In Tshiluba(6) it can be translated as bumuntu (bu- is a prefix indicating a state of being, a modality; and –muntu means a person). Muntu mulume means a man and Muntu mukaji means a woman. Bumuntu is a quality which people have for exteriorizing and affirming their being, their existence. This affirmation happens by sharing life, muoyo. Because for the Bantu, to live or to enjoy life is to respect the community norms and to promote the well-being of all the men, women and children.

In Tshiluba, the term muoyo is used as a greeting, and the greeting recalls the sense of blessing.(7) When someone says: “Muoyo, tatu” (Hello Sir) or: “Muoyo, mamu” (Hello Madam), it is a wish for long life, for well-being, for good health. When muoyo is understood in that sense (a greeting and a blessing), it is close to the concept of shalom, which we shall look at in the following paragraphs.
In the Bantu African understanding of muoyo, the present conditions of life reflect the rhythm and dynamism of Muoyo (with a capital M). What makes life agreeable and beneficial is the fact that good relations are maintained between the human persons (bantu) on the one hand, and on the other hand, between them and the rest of the universe. This interdependence constitutes an ontological basis on which depends a sort of “global epistemology” which makes possible not only human knowledge, but also human “being” and “becoming”. In any case, the muntu way of knowing implies neither separation nor abstraction in relationship to the known object. The knowing subject feels or has the intuition of a certain continuity between him-/herself and the object of his/her knowledge. For a thing is or exists when it takes part in the dynamism of Muoyo. The “epistemological globality” consists in the fact that both the subject and the object of knowledge live in unity, for they are united in Muoyo. That is why even the inanimate things are attributed to the state of life or of death. This is not animism. When the car has broken down, one says mashini akfua (Tshiluba) or motuka ekufi (Lingala), that is, this car “is dead,” it has lost life, muoyo. One can say the same thing about a tree, a flower, a bottle or a snake. The things that are contemplated, experienced and lived are of course distinct, but they cannot be separated in Muoyo.

The coexistence between the living and the dead is another example. “The dead are not dead,” Birago Diop said. The alternation of death (lufu) with life (muoyo) shows to what extent the dead and the living are bound together. If “the dead are not dead,” it is because they have life (muoyo) in the Muoyo. Death and life only constitute the two aspects of the dynamic global field of Muoyo. You have muoyo at birth, whereas you have lufu at the moment of dying. The former constitutes the way of entering into this (visible) world, whereas the latter constitutes the passage into the other (invisible) world (the world beyond). Everything happens within Muoyo.

Muoyo and Ntu

The typology of NTU as shown by Alexis Kagame is another way of understanding the concept of MUOYO. According to Kagame, ntu is, from the linguistic point of view,(8) a root which needs a determinative (a prefix) in order to point xxx to one of the specific categories of the Bantu universe which are:

Mu-ntu, for a human person; plural Ba-ntu
Ki-ntu, for a thing; plural Bi-ntu
Ha-ntu, for a place or time
Ku-ntu, for a modality.

Janheinz Jahn explained that ntu is “a central point of thought based on which the living and the dead, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not understood as being contradictory.” (9)Thus, just like the Muoyo, the Ntu provides the common reality for plants, men, women, fire, air, water and all that exists. In that sense, the “global epistemology” consists in a total (global) apprehension of the meaning of nature which, since it participates in the qualities of Muoyo together with the human persons, generates a series of images which bear indispensable messages for the course of life, muoyo.(10)

From this discussion, it becomes clear that bumuntu is a disposition which affirms the unity of nature (creation) that shares life with all of humanity. On the ethical level, this affirmation needs to be translated into action by seeking the well-being of all, including that of the natural environment in which we evolve. In any case, the meaning of ubuntu obliges us to break all chains of discrimination, violence and conflict, to practice love of neighbor, and to work for the high values of life, which is a gift of God.


Ubuntu in the family

In our day, in many respects the practice of ubuntu (bumuntu) is corrupt due to the confrontation with western values. In traditional African society, the parents took seriously their responsibility to exercise their bumuntu in the child’s socialization in order to produce the sense of ubuntu in the child.(11) Their love, their compassion and the education of the child’s character aimed at the cohesion of the community by reinforcing the values which affirm and consolidate the muoyo such as dignity, justice, solidarity, respect for the other and love. By respecting the other, the child became impregnated with the philosophy of community life as expressed by John Mbiti: “I am because we are; because we are, I am.”(12) This philosophy was apparent in the process of the socialization of the young and consequently, it supported every effort to train the members of the community for their blossoming. Today, it is not like this. Children are raped, abused and mistreated by those who are supposed to protect them. The ever growing number of children living in the street, of adolescent mothers, of child soldiers, and I won’t continue, bears dazzling testimony to this. All this happens because the rules of ubuntu are no longer respected.

Another consequence is the violence within the family. The spouses’ lack of respect for one another leads to incalculable abuses. The women above all are victims of violence practiced by their husbands, which makes them second-class beings. Domestic violence violates the rules of bumuntu. Nothing but the respect of these principles should underlie conjugal life.

The African palayer

In traditional African society, the violation of the norms of ubuntu called for the organization of the palayer.(13)During this palayer, all the participants (men, women and children) had an equal word in the dialogue. The unfolding of the palayer transmitted the rhythm of Muoyo itself and of course of ubuntu. Mutual respect was observed. Even if it happened that people insulted one another or argued, the conclusion of the palayer, followed by a communal meal, imposed repentance, peace and understanding.(14)The objective was liberation, healing, the re-establishment of the social equilibrium, in short, ubuntu.

In leadership

Every authority that knows it holds authentic power is called to respect the bumuntu of its subjects. Dictatorship as well as all abuse of power is a flagrant violation of this !

Wars and inter-ethnic conflicts

For some decades now, we see wars and conflicts in Africa between different ethnic groups who, on principle, lived together for centuries ago without any problem. The fact of having rejected or forgotten the values of ubuntu, which underlay human relations between different ethnic groups, has led to this kind of uncontrollable crises. These values must be revivified in order to reconstitute a solid basis for viable and prosperous communities. It is on this basis that true peace can be built.


* Dr. Kasonga wa Kasonga of the Democratic Republic of Congo is at present the executive secretary of Christian Family Life of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), Nairobi. He has written several books on African theology which are mentioned in his talk
Translated from the French by K.E. Wolff.
1. Muendanyi Mahamba, « Ubuntu and Democracy » in Challenge, Church and People, no. 16, June/July 1993, pp. 6-7.
2. Muendany Mahamba, op. cit., p. 7 (English translation from the author’s French translation).
3. Mandla Gamede, « Ubuntu in Burial Societies » in Challenge, Church and People no. 45, December 1997 – January 1998, pp. 26-27.
4. The name of this association is Zikhuliseni, Ziklife and Ziknews. Its address is the following : Methodist House, 114 Rissik Street, Johannesburg ; POB 32610, Braamfontein 2017.
5. « What Apartheid Has Done to the African Family and Community and How the Present Situation Can Be Transformed » in Trinity Journal of Church and Theology, vol. VIII, September 1998 (special Edition), p. 38.
6. Tshiluba is the language spoken by the Luba peoples who are spread over the provinces of Kasai (Eastern and Western) as far as Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire).
7. Kasonga wa Kasonga, Toward Revisioning Christian Education in Africa : A Critical Reinterpretation of Hope and Imagination in Light of African Understanding of Muoyo, Doctoral Dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, N.J. 1988, pp. 82ff.
8. A Kagame, La Philosophie Bantu-Rwandaise de l’Ltre, Brussels : Académie royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer, 1956.
9. J. Jahn, Muntu, London, Faber & Faber, Ltd. 1961, p. 101.
10.The images which make up African symbolism form a language which expresses the depth of the human drama. They help persons to realize themselves. R. P. Myeng explained this phenomenon in the following terms : « It would be a mistake to think that the sum of African symbols constitutes a kind of code which was established arbitrarily for the needs of a hermetical aestheticism. The symbolism is language. As such, it expresses the reality of the universe which is conceived of as a humanized world, as a life in which the destiny of the human being and that of things make one another. However, the symbolism is not just any language. It understands itself as the expression of the drama of life, that is to say, of the gigantic struggle in which life and death confronting one another constitute the dialectical foundation of existence. And this struggle is only a prelude ; it precedes the victory ; the victory of Life over Death. » Cf. R.P. Myeng, L’art de l’Afrique noire, Mame, 1965, quoted by Louis-V. Thomas and René Luneau, La terre africaine et ses religions, Paris, Librairie Larousse, 1975, p. 111 .
11.Pierre de Ouirini, Des lois pour les jeunes, Kinshasa, CEPAS, 1987, p. 56. The author wrote : « The traditional societies demanded great physical and moral qualities of their adult members. In order to become a full member of the clan, one had to be capable of responding to all the demands of the harsh life of agrarian society. The adult man had to be able to resist pain, be courageous in hunting as in war. He had to assimilate all the traditional knowledge having to do with the ancestors, the wisdom which they had passed on, the knowledge of plants and animals. They had to know the techniques for fabricating houses, utensils, traps, canoes. And above all, they had to be able to raise a family and to defend it against all dangers. »
12.J.S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, London, Heinmann, 1969, pp. 108-109.
13.By palayer I understand a forum or a meeting of the family or the clan which was convoked when any kind of crisis (illness, the sudden death of a child, theft, rape and adultery, or anything else) occurred in the community. It could take the form of a tribunal.
14.For more information on the palayer, cf. my article, « African Christian Palayer : A Contemporary Way of Healing Communal Conflicts and Crisis, » in Emmanuel Lartey, Daisy Nwachuku and Kasonga wa Kasonga, eds., The Church and Healing : Echoes from Africa (African Pastoral Studies), Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, pp. 49-65.


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