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  • Barbara Nusbaum and Kimberly Weichel


Ubuntu is an African word that embodies so much of what we seek in society today. In the Xhosa and Zulu languages ubuntu means "people are people through other people." It is the spirit of oneness, unity, and compassion, and expresses itself in a desire to help others and include everyone. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa says, in ubuntu "my humanity is caught up inextricably in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms." And Nelson Mandela explains “The spirit of ubuntu – that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings – is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.”

The call for our time is to nurture the spirit of ubuntu in these United States of America. This means building on the spirit and principles our country was founded on - the principles of fairness, equality, justice, freedom and democracy for ALL. Our Constitution begins with “We the People” - we entrust our government to govern “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. President Obama said it well in his inauguration speech, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Ubuntu is the spirit of peace - it’s the spirit of respectful win-win - meaning that if a solution doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for me either. Yet it goes beyond Western concepts of me and you to “I evolve and grow because of you and in relation to you.” It refutes the mores of our past decade of “Look out for No.1”, the competitive motto “it’s about winning”, and the capitalist value of “more is better”. Our ability to be fully alive and fulfilled is integrally linked through our relationship to the actions, perceptions and attitudes of others. It is the spirit of cooperation in action.

Ubuntu also calls for cohabitation which is not only about living with others harmoniously but also about accommodating other people’s ideas, and “genuinely seeking to understand before proceeding to persuade them”.[1] Ubuntu teaches the value of inclusivity and the search for reciprocal understanding. Ubuntu is a key ingredient for peace as it calls us all to respect the traditions of others and incorporate them into the whole. Ubuntu is a pathway to peace as it is inclusive and self-critical, reflective and accommodating. So ubuntu for America invites us to“establish harmony in diversity and creativity in community.”.[2]

In the epilogue of his memoir “Dreams From My Father”, we sense Obama’s recognition of his quest for the community of our common humanity. “I hear the spirit of…..Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers…….I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in the Lower East side sweat shop; dust bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of their shattered lives……I hear all of these voices clamouring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life….. What is our community and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How to transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?”

Ubuntu calls forth the binding glue of our collective goodwill, inviting us to choose reconciliation and peace, rather than falling into conflict. What if peace, well-being and the spirit of ubuntu were the organizing principles of our government and society? How different would our policies be? How can we build bridges of peace in our communities, schools, mass media, workplaces, and our country? How could this affect the climate within this country, and the reputation and relationships externally? How do we advance a culture of peace?

Peace is commonly defined as the opposite of war. But peace is much more than the absence of violence. Peace is the dynamic presence of truth, justice, sustainability and well-being for all. Peace is a process - there is no instant method and it is not a permanent state of being. It must be developed over time and constantly nurtured. Ubuntu has also been described as a process of increasing ethical awareness, through which the individual is inspired and called to mature and evolve. Ubuntu would mean that each person is both enriched by and facilitated through our connection to the broader community.

Ubuntu is an intangible and often spiritual quality which amplifies our experience of interconnectedness and interdependence. It could become the bedrock from which the vast fountain of our common humanity springs. Ubuntu prompts a shift of awareness from the individual to the whole group and calls forth the responsibility which flows from the heartfelt connection towards the whole group.[3] Because of its ethical, psychological and social qualities, ubuntuconsciousness inspires the possibility for reconciliation and forgiveness, for caring decision making, which paves the way for justice and ultimately peace.

So peace then, is a state of mind, a way of being and if infused with the spirit of ubuntu brings the awareness that we derive our being from the being of others, that our wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of others. As a path of daily action true.peace requires deep connection with self and others. Peace is personal, political, spiritual and practical and results from the thousands and millions of daily acts of kindness that are shared between one human being to another[4], one community and another, one country and another.

The principles of ubuntu begin with the recognition of two essential elements of what it means to be human as our societies navigate together in this changing world:

The human spirit: In addition to survival needs, every human being has a fundamental need to lead a life of dignity, respect meaning and purpose - to know that our lives make a difference and that we make a difference to each other.through our common humanity.

Interconnectedness: Our actions are shaped by and affect all other people and our natural environment. Our responsibility extends beyond our immediate lives and families to the entire human family. Issues of hunger and poverty are not problems of one country or another but are global issues, and we must solve them as global citizens. “There is no doubt that we are now in a state of global emergency. This unprecedented worldwide crisis is a symptom of a much deeper problem - the current state of our consciousness: how we think about ourselves and our world. We have the urgent need, and now the opportunity, for a complete rethink: to reconsider our values and priorities, to understand our interconnectedness and to begin a new direction - living in harmony with nature and each other.” (Erwin Laszlo)[5]

We live in a world of vast differences that can truly enrich our lives. Yet it is important that we learn how to honor these differences, and reduce misunderstandings. Ubuntu reframes a new way of being, through patience, tolerance and respect. When we deepen our relationship with ourselves and others we transform conflict by peaceful and nonviolent means. It is time to end the cycle of utilizing force and the choice to use violence to attempt to resolve conflict.

In order to extend the spirit of ubuntu in America, we need to value peace as an organizing principle and require peacebuilding courses in our schools. We need to establish structures of peace in our government and in society. We stand on a threshold of possibility in a moment of crisis. We have the tools and we know what to do; may we have the wisdom and courage to act in accordance with our better nature. We stand with President Obama as he states unequivocally, "America's moral example must be the bedrock of our global leadership." Let us, together expand the spirit of ubuntu in America. Yes, we can!

In his acceptance speech in Oslo when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama re-inspired us with an essential element of peace. He reminded us that "the nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their faith in human progress — must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey."

As the African saying goes, “When there is Peace in the individual, there is Peace in the family. When there is Peace in the family, there is Peace in the community. When there is Peace in the community, there is Peace in the nation. When there is Peace in the nation, there is Peace in the world.”

Kimberly Weichel is a social pioneer, educator, author, and CEO of Peace X Peace, an international organization that raises and amplifies women’s voices and supports women peacebuilders. She is co-author of the recent book “Healing the Heart of the World”

Barbara Nussbaum is an author, coach and educator providing mentoring and courses in ubuntu. She has published internationally on the subject of ubuntu. She is co-author of the book, “Reclaiming African Leadership” (Forthcoming, Penguin 2010)


[1] Khoza: 2006 (20 – 23) in Reuel Khoza Let Africa Lead. Vezubuntu Books, South Africa 2006.

[2] Khoza: 2006 (20)

[3] Dandala, Mvume,: Cows Never Die, in Lessem and Nussbaum ((1996), Sawubona Africa: Embracing Four Worlds in South African Management. (Zebra Press, Struik, South Africa)

[4] Dandala (1996), Cows Never Die, in Lessem and Nussbaum ((1996)

[5] Laszlo, now the director of Worldshift 2012 and the Club of Budapest, was also part of the Club of Rome initiative in the 1970s.

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