In a Word – Ubuntu


Our words define us in many ways. As I write this, we are in Kigali, Rwanda, doing work and being inspired by the people and the wildlife we’ve seen on our travels around the country. This evening, I noticed a Facebook post by Michael Barth regarding the word, “Ubuntu.” I went to Wikipedia and found a lot of variations of this word in the Bantu languages of the southern parts of Africa, but all had similar philosophical meanings.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a definition in his 1999 book, A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.


Peace and reconciliation are the terms often used to describe the work being done after the genocide, civil wars and guerrilla conflicts in many African nations. Those words embody the spirit of “Ubuntu” (“umunthu” in Malawi or “unhu” in Zimbabwe). The sense of respect and responsibility for others seems to be in each of these variants as part of a philosophy not too unlike the “golden rule” of western countries.


The idea of ubuntu just fell out of the Facebook cybersky, but it has been around a long time. U.S. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt talked about the principle of ubuntu in a 1903 speech:


It is all-essential to the continuance of our healthy national life that we should recognize this community of interest among our people. The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us, and therefore in public life that man is the best representative of each of us who seeks to do good to each by doing good to all; in other words, whose endeavor it is not to represent any special class and promote merely that class’s selfish interests, but to represent all true and honest men of all sections and all classes and to work for their interests by working for our common country…


In these waning days of the election in the U.S., I hope we remember what unites us as humans and quit dwelling on that which divides us. We need a spirit of Ubuntu to find solutions to the many social, economic and environmental problems that plague us in the United States and abroad. It’s time to lay down the rhetoric and find a better way for America and the world. In a word – Ubuntu.


– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

2 thoughts on “In a Word – Ubuntu

  1. Thanks for sharing this word and the concept it represents. Having just watched the 2nd presidential debate, and still listening to various commentators’ assessments of it, I agree with you–it’s time to set aside all the divisiveness that has become so dominant in the US and pull together to work for that we share, the potential we have together, the possibilities that are there if we can stop fighting. Having said that, I feel very strongly that President Obama, and the Democratic Party are more interested in seeing this happen than the Republicans. Sadly, I don’t believe the Republicans, at least those who are at the head of the party, can’t even begin to understand the concept of “ubuntu.”

    1. I’m afraid you are correct, Jane. We had the pleasure of working on a project with Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming a couple of years ago and spent three days with him. He is the older style politician who believes in finding common ground, but he shared his frustration with the current approaches in Congress. The Simpson-Bowles Plan tackles the tough financial issues but has lacked traction. We need a new spirit of “ubuntu.”

      Tim Merriman

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