by Alexandra Restina
Ubuntu is the Nguni Bantu name for a Southern African philosophy based around kindness and ‘human-ness’ or humanity towards others; and is often seen as African Humanism (2). There are various definitions for Ubuntu, but its basis is its focus on society and how society influences the individual instead of a higher power (2), which makes the philosophy easily incorporated alongside organized religions. The most well known saying in Ubuntu is 'I am because we are', meaning that communities shape the individual (2).
Figure 1. Ubuntu Advertisement (1).
The figure below illustrates how through Ubuntu a community works together as “a natural organism” Western philosophies operate with people being cogs in “a great machine” (4).
Figure 2. Ubunti vs. Western Philosophies (4).
History and Origins:
This philosophy is primarily found in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Malawi. Ubuntu, also known as Hunhuism in Shona, became prevalent during the rise of Africanization (or transition further away from colonialism and towards a traditional African focus) during the 1980s and 1990s (2). Ubuntu became more widely known outside of Southern Africa with the rise of Nelson Mandela as a world leader (2). Archbishop Desmond Tutu is also a prominent figure in Ubuntuism (2). As the Archbishop shows, Ubuntu can work together with an organized religion to help promote community minded actions, meaning that Ubuntu philosophy or spirituality and religion are not mutually exclusive (2).
Implications in Global Health Planning and Practice:
Ubuntu provides a code of ethics in regards to many factors of life, including healthcare. One of these main beliefs is that medical professionals and healers provide their work without demanding payment, because giving these services should be done freely (3). In Ubuntu it is also very important to meet the physical and psychological health needs of the community at large, but also for one to take care of their own holistic health (4). The health of the community is placed above the health of self because of how caring for others enriches life (4). Ubuntu is also seen as a way to bridge together the world of traditional and holistic medicine with the world of modern medicine in a way that can engage communities in Africa (3). It can also assist in areas of healthcare management because of its focus on community (5). By having a more open dialogue with communities, needs can be accurately accessed, and frustration with the system can be alleviated because there is openness both ways (5). Community focused healthcare and healthcare management coincide very well with the general principles of public health given that this discipline is population focused. Treating the population at large instead of the individual may seem incongruous, but through the holistic health of the whole can come the holistic health of the part, which is what Ubuntu is all about (4).
Ubuntu as a philosophy can be incorporated in all aspects of life, but that does not inherently mean that it can be easy to do so. Specifically, the idea that healthcare workers should not demand payment for their services is something of an ideal and is not something that can be feasibly done in reality; people simply need compensation in order to live. Another limitation comes from the idea of justice within Ubuntu, and the idea that the lives of offender and victim are intertwined (6). One of the most extreme but also notable cases of this is of Amy Biehl. Amy Biehl was a white woman and Fulbright recipient traveling with her four black friends in South Africa right after the abolition of apartheid (6). Their vehicle was surrounded and Amy was murdered by four men (6). A few years later the men petitioned the court on basis of a political crime and asked to meet with Amy’s parents to apologize for their crime (6). The Biehls met with the men who under the spirit of Ubuntu offered themselves as sons for their one daughter (6). The Biehls adopted two of the men, and the Amy Biehl Foundation was created in memory of their daughter (6). While this specific case may not have bearing in healthcare or public health, cases such as rape and abuse would. It would be hard to believe that a woman who had been raped could have this attitude toward her attacker, and it would be impossible to ask a survivor to do such a thing. While Ubuntu can have many practical and easily applicable aspects, this is one that would be difficult to ask of the public at large.
(1) Muchie M. South Africa’s Democratic Transition and Transformation from 1994-2014. http://www.goolgule.com/south-africas-democratic-transition-and-transformation-from-1994-2014/.
(2) Hailey J. Ubuntu: a literature review. Tutu Foundation UK. 2008.
(3) Mhame PP, Busia K, Kasilo OMJ. Clinical practices of African traditional medicine. African Health Observatory. Report number: 13, 2010.
(4) Kalbfell B, Lyons T, Braun C. Ubuntu Wiki. https://lms.manhattan.edu/mod/wiki/view.php?id=12488 (accessed March 14, 2015).
(5) Tjale A, De Villiers L. Cultural Issues in Health and Health Care: A Resource Book for Southern Africa. : Juta and Company Ltd; 2004.
(6) Nagel M. Promises of Ubuntu in the New South Africa. SUNY Cortland Department of Philosophy. 2008.
Louw DJ . Ubuntu: An African Assessment of the Religious Other. Philosophy in Africa. https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Afri/AfriLouw.htm.