September 5, 2011

I was recently at a concert and the performer (featured on the Song for September) began talking about this African concept called “Ubuntu”. He quickly mentioned that it’s basic meaning is, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It was evident that in the short amount of time he had there was no way he could unpack the meaning of something so rich and profound, so he ended by suggesting: “You can google ‘Ubuntu’ “.

There was an incongruence to his suggestion that I found interesting. On the one hand, I can google ‘Ubuntu’ and learn its meaning. Through text and rationalism I can add the word into my compendium of knowledge. I might even tattoo “Ubuntu” on my arm and when asked what it means I would say, “It’s a Zulu word that means that I am because of who we all are.” Without saying a word, their faces would say: This guy is mysteriously deep.

Yet, on the other hand, “Ubuntu” is not something that can be Googled. There is more involved to understanding this African philosophy. Sitting in my home in isolation, typing the letters “u-b-u-n-t-u” and reading the corresponding sites that appear does not make me someone who has grasped the depth of its meaning. I imagine that to scratch the surface of its meaning would require me to engage/involve/learn/open/immerse myself into the life of Africans who can model/teach its true meaning.

Nelson Mandela attempted to define “Ubuntu” by saying, “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.”

In the West, we equate “reading something” with “understanding it”. We have been misled into believing:

I google, therefore I know.”

We value the convenience, speed and safety in which we can gather information about concepts and ideas without ever leaving our homes. But are we really learning? Are we actually understanding?

As Google, Wikipedia and other online resources gain more momentum in our world, we must remain critical and skeptical of how we gather information and what reliance we place on them. There is something scary about the paradoxical intimacy and isolation that the internet has created. We are a lot closer to subject matter yet at the same time remain distant from it.

There is also the additional false expectation that search engines can deliver anything we want in life. Type in any word or phrase and you will feast on the harvest immediately.

For example, you might type “strong marriage” into the blank field in hopes of learning what it takes to have a strong marriage. Articles, books, organizations and conferences might come up as results to your search. You might read the articles, buy the books and attend the conferences. Yet, strong marriages are not the result of information gathering. It requires more than that. Google serves a valuable purpose by feeding us necessary data. Yet, what we don’t question is that maybe the convenience of attaining that information sets us up with unrealistic expectations of what it actually takes to build a healthy relationship with our spouse. The task of putting into practice what we learn is not convenient or instant.

In other words, a strong marriage is a result of what happens on the inside. This is a process that unlike a Google search, takes a lot of time, patience and hard work.

In a world of digital dazzle and instant datafication (word I made up that means ‘getting the data you need’) we are constantly sold the lie that life is enhanced by the technology we own. A photogram is now an Instagram. Catching up with people over a conversation is now Facebook. Witnessing the spontaneity of life is now Youtube.

My hope is that in the face of all this, we would have the wisdom, courage and strength to know when…

to shut our computers off

power down our iPhone/Blackberry/Android phone

so that we could step into the remarkable world of …

real conversations filled with awkward silence and nervous small talk.

hugs so tight that you smell like the other person’s scent for hours.

laughter so loud that you’re literally rolling on the floor.

Maybe then we might be ready to understand what “Ubuntu” really means.

13 thoughts on “Ubuntu

  1. @theelderscroll-not sure what you’re referring to because no one has commented from this entry in a long time.

  2. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox
    and now each time a comment is added I get four emails
    with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that
    service? Thanks!

  3. Omar, I’m not sure if I’m pushing people down or just grabbing for whomever is around to suck them into the vortex that is this crazy ride. 🙂
    As far as “realizing how desperate/needy we are for others to succeed, etc. and how our outcomes are deeply related,” consider wrapping your self around Philippians 2:12 (working out salvation with fear and trembling). In the Greek, the pronouns there are plural; whereas, we typically use it as a “rugged individualism” verse, Paul understood that the Philippian church was working out their salvation TOGETHER. So, if Ubuntu is applied to soteriology, what does it look life if your salvation is wrapped up in my own and vice versa? 🙂
    I’m still trying to figure that one out.
    Love you bro.

  4. Very well said and a pertinent reminder of our desire and acceptance of immediate “experts”. I think sometimes we are just so over connected that we don’t recognize our need for true connection and are over burdened from being constantly connected that we don’t want the connection that “real” life can offer us. Thanks for giving me something to ponder when I turn my computer off tonight! 🙂

  5. @Julie- Welcome to the club. I’ve decided that I’m going to “google” less and verbally ask more (when possible) . It’s ridiculous the amount of times I’ll tune someone out who is explaining something because in my head I’m thinking, “I’ll just google this later”. #embarassingbuttrueconfession
    Agreed. Weather like this should be a motivator to enjoy real scenery instead of pixelated ones! Gracias Julie.

  6. @Dan- Good thoughts. It would seem that the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of “the body” to communicate not just the distinctiveness of people but the inter-connectedness. This idea of Ubuntu is so contrary from our “rugged individualism” that it’s going to take time for me to understand what it means. For now, I can look at my life and admit that who I am today is a result of the various relationships I have and have had. Both positive and negative ones. I wonder if the next step is to realize how needy/desperate I am for others to succeed, flourish and thrive because their outcome is deeply related to mine. Which is contrary to how I view things which is: I am needy/desperate for ME to succeed, flourish and thrive. If this view can be altered even slightly the implications are huge. Love to you my friend. I am both grateful and indebted to you for pushing me down this rabbit-hole we find ourselves in!

  7. @HIlda- So true! Sometimes, a cool moment that’s not photographed makes me feel like I’ve missed out on something. Almost like, “This moment would have been EVEN more special if I had taken a picture of it!”. Then I feel at a loss without relishing the moment for what it is. I’ve got to remember that memories are impacting, treasured and important regardless if a picture was taken or not. Thanks for sharing H and also appreciate the props!

  8. Word. I’m guilty of being a googler. It’s easy to pretend a person has Ubuntu – or, real community, real life, real experiences with real loved ones – when you are so connected online, but what do those connections actually translate into? The next 10 days look like our last real summer days for the year – I, for one, accept the challenge to “plug in” a little less and enjoy the real life experience a little more. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Omar,

    Ubuntu…same concept different name of the ways in which people, like Jeanine, find their definition of themselves. Much like the apostles/followers of the Way in Acts would also have defined themselves.
    I’m curious, where, in your own life, are you able to say, “I am Omar because of ‘x,y,z’ people?” Or, can we, together, state that “We are Dan and Omar partially because of the relationship we share?” Is saying, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be who I am today?” similar to this concept of Ubuntu?
    And, how does Ubuntu effect/transform/infect the church as you know, and influence, it? 🙂

    Love you bro.

  10. Thanks for the challenge, O.

    I have to agree with you…I find that sometimes even trying to capture memories and moments with a camera has become such a huge part of gatherings that people forget to just enjoy the moment. We are so preoccupied with capturing that beautiful sunset, or the amazing ocean view that we forget to just be still and immerse ourselves in the marvel without thinking “OH MAN! My facebook friends NEED to see this.” because in reality, it’ll never be the same for your friends who are viewing it through a photo because it’s YOUR memory, not theirs. And it’s so easy to just *snap snap snap* pictures in our digital world because we can always take 100 photos, alter the ones that actually turned out, and hope that people appreciate the photograph as much as you appreciate the memory.

    Kinda sucks when people just go “Oh. That’s nice.” They just don’t understand…so those mediocre reactions put it all into perspective. That’s what has happened to me anyway.

    p.s. love reading your blog!

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