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  • Writer's pictureTamsin Hartley

The individual and the community

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

There is an African Zulu greeting that people give when they meet one another: Sawubona. More than our traditional ‘hello’, this word literally means ‘I see you’. It is a way of saying, ‘I see your personality, your humanity, your dignity, your respect.’

The response to this greeting is Ngikhona: ‘I am here’. You are letting the other person know that you feel you have been seen and understood, that your personal dignity has been acknowledged.

Inherent in this Zulu greeting, with its grateful response, is the notion that when you acknowledge me, you bring me into existence. The Zulu folk saying, Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu – shortened to Ubuntu – is an expression of this sentiment: ‘I am, because you are’, or ‘A person is a person because of other people.’

Ubuntu recognises community is a fundamental building block of society. In the words of Desmond Tutu:

‘Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.’

In his very moving TED talk Boyd Varty also talks about Ubuntu. He explains that ‘we get to experience the deepest parts of our humanity through our interactions with others.’ When we truy listen to what another person has to say we are ‘holding a space’ for them ‘to express the deepest truth’ of who they are.

We affirm them and acknowledge their humanity: ‘I see you.’

We give them the opportunity, in their own way, to say ‘And I am here.’

We are more connected. And for both of us our humanity is affected.

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