Ubuntu: Personal, Linguistic, Pedagogical and Indigenous Narratives of Words, Worlds and Wisdom

Research and Writings by Riham Aziz el Din, Egypt

April 2022

Introduction

Years of researching and working in cognitive and humanistic psychology has provided me with a framework of theories, jargon and tools to deconstruct the most challenging and complicated context of being a woman, feminist and radical educator in Egypt. As an academic scholar within the framework of institutionalized higher education, I felt the urge to break the rigid pattern of building knowledge and sharing it. When I stepped outside the “box”, a life-long journey of learning, knowing, growing and connecting with the core questions started, ones that I couldn’t feel that the wealth of theories could easily and automatically provide an answer to.  My journey started when I found a huge gap between what “academia” dictates and all the wealth and moments of wonder I experienced while working closely in the Egyptian as well as Arab context of teaching and learning. These gaps between two parallel paths, which were supposed to complete and reflect on each other, have initiated the process of questioning all my learning and beginning to wonder what “authentic learning” for human experience is. Moreover, I reached a flow of realizations on colonized minds and how such minds are built and equipped by white supremacy, capitalism and a patriarchal frame of thinking.

The fundamental companions of my journey are: First, a personal and subjective narrative in a way to build my own knowledge, my own way, on my own rhythm following my own questions. Second, bridging and connecting narratives with feminist and indigenous pedagogies of contexts of learning and “knowing” beyond both already existing dominant theories and rigidly manufactured knowledge. 

In this article, I share both narratives on my way to “know” or, to be more precise, to remember what we all “know”.

First: Personal and Linguistic “Knowing”

  1. 1 Alice, Rabbits and Words!

“Alice in Wonderland” for me is not just a childhood bedtime story or a cartoon. I believe that Alice, the rabbit, the doors that require shrinking, the magical biscuits that double-size your legs so you can see the world from a different perspective, the parallel world that seems to be very well established as a reality not magic, the desire to follow the unknown and unfamiliar paths and finding, in the places of uncertainty (of what waits  ahead) – all these Alician dynamics are my haven rather than being my void. If Alice, in her magical world, was a girl who once felt alone and bored and found her way out through diving deep in her inner world accompanied by her vivid imagination, I can consider myself the grown up version of Alice, this version that lives in Egypt, specifically in Cairo, since 2013. If Alice and her magic have both offered the world entertainment, connection to the inner child and what imagination can create, I believe that my customized version of Alice would offer the context of learning, connecting and growing, holistically and wholeheartedly, a narrative and experience that readers, educators and humans across definition, tradition and image might want to hold as a frame of reference to later reflect on within their own contexts and worlds.

Also, I have never seen the rabbit, the one that runs and urges Alice to follow. In my own narrative, my rabbit is always words!

  1. 2 Adamic Language

According to the Holy Quran – the solid reference of Standardized Arabic language- there is Adamic language, which is thought of as the language of all languages, the language that Adam and Eve communicated with in the Garden of Eden. Most importantly, it is the language that Adam used to communicate with Allah before descending to earth. There is no clear mention about the nature nor the source of the Adamic Language,  Yet, I always reflected on the following verse of the Holy Quran:

(31) And He taught Adam the names – all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.” (32) They said, “Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.” 1

In the above mentioned verse, there is a conversation between Allah and Adam, where Adam is taught “the names”, and the act of teaching Adam all the names is a privilege only for Adam, as angels don’t have access to “names” of Knowledge and Wisdom. I have always been curious about the word “names”, what was Adam taught exactly? My linguistic brain knows the difference between the “name” as a label for everything and the connection between the “labels” and formulations of meanings. But with the “names” that are transmuted, transferred, given exclusively to Adam before he starts his journey to Earth, what are these names, are they labels and to which meanings, and most profoundly when Adam descends to earth, how would he start his mission, not as a prophet, but as a linguist, he had a mission of giving human tribes the names that facilitate communication, how has this happened? Are we close or away from these names?

I am curious about the Adamic language, not only driven by spiritual connection, but I am curious about the assumption: 

What if there is a perennial language, a divine language, a language of all languages, an archetypal language, a prototype language from which all the patterns of languages, with all their variations, emerged?

If there is  such a language, what is its nature, and how does it work as a reservoir of all the words’ that are not mere letters or separated segments, what if the “words” of such a “Language” are like gates/doors/ bridges that, once you learn/connect with them, you, like Adam, find wisdom that is beyond human wisdom. A wisdom that  is, I wouldn’t write a “divine” as it would imply a conclusionI don’t want to jump to very quickly, I want to follow the call of “words” that are beyond the “familiar” dictionary: a well established set of frames created by the massive accumulation of knowledge and words. 

Nowadays, as a human, it is not challenging to find a word to describe or name, but what word, what word has the generative force like life, can words be loaded with energy that create worlds that as humans we have never been to before, can “words” bring us much closer to Adam? And, figuratively, here Adam to me is not a prophet or a historical/religious character, Adam is the home we walked away from on our journeys to “know” – but as we  individual and collective journeys, with all their variations, it sometimes becomes very hard to remember, to look back to the core or to the Monad.

Second: Ubuntu – Indigenous Narratives of “KNOWING”

I came across the word “Ubuntu” while searching for the word “circle”. I always believed in learning in a circle. In a circle, I love how all of us at a certain moment of a learning-teaching flow choose to find our place in a circle, feel connected when there is a place for everyone, and most importantly that everyone can see another. In a circle, we are all seen and we all are connected. 

Then, I came to the following picture and paused:

African Kids and Ubuntu2

The word and the picture have led me to the following story:

An anthropologist proposed a game to kids in an African tribe. He put a basket near a tree and told the kids that the first one to find the fruits would win them all. When he told them to run they all took each other’s hands and ran together, enjoying their fruits. When he asked them why they ran like that as one could have taken all the fruits for one’s self, they said: “Ubuntu. How can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”

2.1 – Ubuntu – Word, Concept and Humanistic Wisdom

The word “Ubuntu” which is pronounced as  uu-Boon-too has a whole history of research and investigation around what it means. Oppenheim (2012) commented that: The word Ubuntu comes from the Xhosa/Zulu culture, the community into which Nelson Mandela was born, and has been summarized in the phrase, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” in the Nguni language of Xhosa, Zulu, or Ndebele. The concept of this phrase can be translated to mean, “A person is a person through other persons,” or “I am because we are.” 3

Mapadimeg (2009) observed that the first attempt, at an intellectual level, to define and describe the ubuntu culture was made by Jordan K. Ngubane in the 1960s and 1970s. Mapadimeg (2009) observed that: Ngubane (1963) defined ubuntu/botho as a philosophy of life and practice of being humane which gave content to life for African people long before the arrival of white settlers, and that it rests on the supreme ethical code which attaches primacy to human personality as a sacred being. 4

Broodryk (1995) observed that “it is difficult to give an exact meaning of ‘Ubuntu’ in English or other Western languages and challenging”.5 In 2013, Praeg confirmed the same challenge in his published article: An answer to the question: what is “ubuntu”? where he explicitly declares that “it is difficult to translate and unpack the concept concisely in English as one has to consider the cultural variations and interpretations of Southern African cultures”. 6

In 2015, Mberia traced back the origin of the concept as a whole and not only the word and found that it belongs to the Nguni proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, and the etymological translations of the word/concept are, ‘a person is a person through or by other people’ or ‘a person is a person because of other people’ 7 in the same paper, Mberia continues that “In Luganda, “obuntu” is a shorter form of “obuntu bulamu” meaning “human behavior” whereas in Kinyarwanda “ubuntu” means generosity. These changes have come about as a result of semantic shift. The word for “humanness/humanity” in Kinyarwanda it is “ubumuntu”.8

Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows: 

“A traveler 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. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?9

Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008 saying:

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. 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.”10

He specifically added:

‘It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather:

 “I am a human because I belong. 

I participate. 

I share.

 I am because you are.”

2.2 – Ubuntu – Pedagogy and the KNOWING

In the previous section, the thread of unfolding the meaning of Ubuntu has shown how this simple word finds its way to build a concept that is rooted in ancient knowledge. Jung believes that when humankind restores its cords and connections with ancient wisdom, there is a possibility that a hidden pattern that connects all the loose ends might be found and activated. Moreover, humankind, whether individuals or communities, might find layers of magic where faith in humanity is restored and the spectrum of human experience gets much clarity, depth, breadth and richness. 11

The core values of the Ubuntu philosophy, which in ancient knowledge of Ubuntu are: dignity, freedom, love, oneness, consciousness and connectedness have worked as five dimensional elements creating the Ubuntu paradigm in education and innovation. For example, one of the fundamental principles of distributed ledger technology, known as blockchain is a clear and simple manifestation of the Ubuntu core motto: “I am because you are”. On a blockchain, validation of a transaction can only be approved through the concomitant confirmation by the other nodes in the network. In this sense nodes are only relevant through the other nodes.

Re-centering education as a moral enterprise, Ubuntu philosophy is thought of as a gate to reimagining humanist education. In an answer to the question of what is humanism for higher education, Oviawe (2016) suggests that “Ubuntu philosophy provides a combination of valuable attributes of the positivistic and the non-linear organic systems of knowledge (that) might create the ideal framework to foster an ethos of a holistic, transformative and emancipatory educational experience for all”. 12

She adds that Ubuntu is envisioned as a framework that locates identity and meaning-making within a collective approach as opposed to an individualistic one. As a result, the individual is not independent of the collective; rather, the relationship between a person and their community is reciprocal, interdependent and mutually beneficial. Also, according to the same researcher, Ubuntu helps to deal with the nature of being (i.e., ontology) regardless of whether this knowledge is intrinsic or extrinsic, and provides a framework to distinguish belief from opinion (i.e., epistemology). It also involves the theoretical and systematic analysis of a set of procedures through which a particular belief system is practiced (i.e., methodology). It is believed that working in light of the Ubuntu framework will be reflected in the school environment and influences theories of teaching and learning, pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, professional development, language of instruction.

Assie´-Lumumba (2004) contends that “imagining a global humanist education means utilizing a framework that may be more local and at the same time open to the global, while being complementary of and consistent with the indigenous and the colonial systems of education”.13 Oviawe (2013) concludes that “In Africa, rediscovering the Ubuntu paradigm in education is a first step towards reclaiming the African educational space in order to create education systems that are culturally and intellectually relevant”. 14 Oviawe continues saying that “A pedagogical and curricular ethos that is underpinned by the philosophical foundations of Ubuntu would help to ameliorate the long-standing effects of the colonial legacy of the received education system in Africa; in effect it will ‘‘erase the lingering colonial smile’’ and counter what Harry Lewis (2007) refers to as ‘‘excellence without a soul’’. 15

Oviawe (2013) also emphasizes that the rediscovery of alternative paradigms like Ubuntu shifts the dominant “Western-Eurocentric gaze from an over-reliance on positivism, Eurocentrism, classism and individualism to a more human-centered and holistic approach that recognizes the interdependencies within the ecosystem of people, planet and place”.16 Oviawe brings to the frontier of focus and priority, the notion of the interconnectedness of the universe by saying: “The universe is a network of interdependent systems embedded within micro systems, just as the human body comprises a multiplicity of organs, each connected to a group of cells, molecules and atoms. Communities are networks of relationships both biological and social that exist within a given ecosystem. It is clear that humans and nature are intertwined and have a relationship of reciprocity whereby one depends on the other to survive”. Oviawe adds that “Ubuntu as well as any local and indigenous frameworks provide “a roadmap for viewing the world in a more wholistic and ecologically sound manner, revealing the processes behind the connections and patterns that crystallize seemingly separate parts into a unified whole”.

It is such a unification that finds its place not only within one culture, but stems from local to global connectedness as well described by Brock-Utne (2009) : “educational practices stem from Ubuntu philosophy bridge the divide found between the privileged Western and the discarded indigenous. This might lead later on to reduce the duality phenomenon of “us and them”, “good and bad”. Such dualism encountered severely when questions on  generating knowledge, creating authentic meaningful learning, creating identity for education and other types of epistemologies that are overlooked when working on the explicit curriculum (what is taught), hidden curriculum (what is the norm)  and the null curriculum (what is  not taught)”.17

Third: From Ubuntu as the Thread to Perennial Weaving into Language, Education and Life 

Reflective Narrative

In the first two sections of the current paper, I described my journey with Ubuntu, starting from the imaginative narrative that creates a space to welcome a new adventure where I met the perennial word “Ubuntu” and then how such realization has created much wisdom when the journey continues to unfold its magic as I get connected to my element, which is the languages of Arabic and English, and most importantly, the different layers of meaning beyond the surface level words. Such realizations have helped me smoothly flow to my next station where I felt connected, rooted and curious enough to share forward all the gifts along the way. Also, I briefly outlined my research on the Ubuntu concept and philosophy within the overall frame of humanist education. In this section, which will be subjective and reflective, I will share how “Ubuntu” manifested itself with all its potentials and interwoven texture of my creative realms shown in creative writing as well as teaching- learning practices created, shared, and evolved within the Egyptian-Arabic frameworks and contexts.

  1. I needed to find the equivalent of Ubuntu, “I am because we are ” concept in the already existing knowledge and wisdom of Arabic culture. I didn’t prefer choosing the shortcut of imposing the word “Ubuntu” as a concept and creating awareness around it. I choose to start from what the Arabic language and culture can provide. I found the same exact concept and philosophy in Islam as follows:

I find that the perennial concept of connectedness and togetherness unfolded in the Ubuntu as same as “Ihsan” or “Ethar” in Islam. I would quote the following from the Holy Quran: 

“Those who were forced to leave their homes, lands, and everything they once had and found themselves in a new strange land, they follow their call to Allah. They support what they always believed in their hearts. They are the believers. When they reached the new land, a community of believers welcomed them, shared love and homes, showing philanthropy even when they were also poor. The vastness and faith settled in their hearts that they find neither hatred nor confusion of being in the new land together.”18

Also, in the following:

An-Nu‘mān ibn Bashīr (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The believers, in their mutual love, compassion, and sympathy are like a single body; if one of its organs suffers, the whole body will respond to it with sleeplessness and fever.”

  1. Created a “Human Circle” of more than 25 individuals from different backgrounds and ages with the purpose of finding out, together: what makes us human? And who is the humanistic educator? The learning circle questioned politically, spiritually, personally and pedagogically the teachings of Krishnamurti, Alan Watts and, later on, Carl Rogers’s theory and research on “On Being Human ”. The “Human circle” worked as a Monad for an idea I have been pursuing for years on what is the identity of the educator in the Egyptian context. The community of Human circle, not only shook the cognitive as well humanistic theories I investigated for years, they wholeheartedly built genuine and organic knowledge by relating all the learning, teachings and reflections during the circle to their own life, creating unexpected narratives and threads on collectivism and humanness. The human circle started with closing rites, we not only shared knowledge, they also invited another 25 individuals whom they consciously chose to be witnesses of the learning journey and to be their own manifestation of the “humanistic educator” from their own life, with their own narrative and their own choice.
  2. Created and built a School Based Reform (SBR) model which is applied later in four governorates of Egypt. The SBR model was based on what I called a “Theory of CC”, theory of compassion and connectedness. I wanted to challenge the dominant narrative used at industrial institutions, which is the “theory of change” and find a point where compassionate, connected and collaborative learning communities are created, empowered and validated in the challenging context of teaching and learning in Egypt. The SBR and the TCC are all implemented in the governmental schools where neither privileges nor support are received.
  3. Later on, I wanted to scale up the “Human circle” into new frontiers and contexts. “Humanistic educators without borders” was created in 2018 and evolved into a network of educators working within the educational system of four Arab countries: Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Morocco.  The main purpose of the network is to generate and share knowledge on creating and owning our identity in education and how such generic knowledge can be reflected into professional development programs not only for educators within the already existing systems of education, but also anyone who is curious about knowing oneself, caring, belonging to a community and advocating for what they believe in to change the belief system, traditions and narrow definitions of collective Arab culture and within each country’s context.
  4. Creating a community of Egyptian women with the purpose of filtering and reading critically the knowledge on women mental health and feminist psychology. The Women Circle has resulted in writing down our      own manifesto that expresses our anger, frustration and our stands from the patriarchal practices in the contemporary context.
  5. As a linguist, writer and researcher in philosophy of education and being inspired by Ubuntu philosophy, a conversation was initiated on the language of instruction especially in Bilingual settings. A community of 45 teachers of English as a Foreign Language is supported and facilitated to share and reach consensus on the utilization of English on one hand and on another hand, the social debate in Egypt as well as other Arab countries on the abandonment of Standardized Arabic as a mother tongue. 
  6. Creative Classrooms Circles initiated in 2017 where “power dynamics” between physical and nonphysical actors in the scene of learning interact and how deconstructing the scene helps in creating alternative narratives of understating learning paths and humanistic teaching. 
  7. Women Run with the Wolves- Egyptian version” is a series of articles published since 2021 creating a tribe of women from my contemporary culture that creates leads and manifests a life of their own definitions and choices, who consciously and wholeheartedly own their stories and find their own way in breaking the patricidal patterns.

In “Ubuntu”, “I am because we are”, I learnt that to share and connect within circles worked like magic when connectedness, humanness, compassion and oneness finds its way from inside out. I still believe in my work and am waiting for the next stage, a new adventure, a new station where the Alice in me never stops learning, connecting, growing and wholeheartedly sharing.

About Riham

Riham Aziz El Din is an independent researcher of applied linguistics, feminist and critical pedagogies and professional development for educators.

Riham holds a Master’s degree in Creative Dramatics with more than 10 years of hands on experience in curriculum design, digital empowerment for marginalized communities, human rights education and humanistic psychology in teaching and learning.

Riham is a creative writer and poetess who dreams of a place where we can all live together: animals, trees, humans and find a creative way, perhaps a language or something else,  to communicate and thrive together with peace, harmony and connectedness.

Riham believes in magic when humans learn something new in their own way, own definition and on their own rhythm.

To quote Riham, “When seeing a cat, I say Hello!”

Footnotes

1 Holy Quran, Surat Al Bakara, verses 31 & 32. Translated version into English available on: http://quran.ksu.edu.sa/translations/english/6.html?a=38. Retrieved on 2nd January, 2022.

2 Ubuntu Tribe. Available at: https://www.utribe.one/about-us/ Retrieved on January 6th, 2022.

3 Mapadimeng, S. Oppenheim, C. E. (2012) “Nelson Mandela and the Power of Ubuntu”. In Religions, 3, 369-388.

4  Mapadimeng, S (2009) “Culture Versus Religion: A Theoretical Analysis of the Role Indigenous African Culture of Ubuntu in Social Change and Economic Development in Post-Apartheid South Africa”. In Politics and Religion, Vol. III.

5  Broodryk, J. (1995). Is Ubuntuism unique? Decolonizing the mind, Research Unit for African Philosophy, UNISA, Pretoria, 31–37.

6  Praeg, L. (2013). An answer to the question: what is [ubuntu]?. South African Journal of Philosophy, 27(4), 367–385.

7  Mberia,  Kithaka wa. (2015). Ubuntu: Linguistic Explorations. International Journal of Scientific Research and Innovative Technology Vol. 2 No. 1; January 2015.

8  Mberia,  Kithaka wa. (2015). Ubuntu: Linguistic Explorations. International Journal of Scientific Research and Innovative Technology Vol. 2 No. 1; January 2015.

9 Mandela, Nelson. (2006). Video: Ubuntu Linux Launch. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/Experience_ubuntu.ogv Retrieved on January 5th, 2022.

10 Tutu, Desmond. (2013). Human uniqueness and the African spirit of Ubuntu. Video. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wZtfqZ271w Retrieved on January 5th, 2022

11 Jung, Carl. (1996). Synchronicity- Science, Myth and the Trickster. New York:  Allan Combs & Mark Holland. Marlow & company.

12 Osa Oviawe,  Joan. (2016). How to rediscover the Ubuntu paradigm in education. International Review of Education, Volume 62, issue 1. 

13 Assie´-Lumumba, N. T. (2004). Sustaining home-grown innovations in higher education in sub-Saharan Africa: A critical reflection. Journal of International Cooperation in Education, 7(1), 71–81.

14  Oviawe, J. (2013). Appropriating colonialism: Complexity and chaos in the making of a Nigeria-centric educational system (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved 6 January 2022 from  https://research.wsulibs.wsu.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/2376/5022/Oviawe_wsu_0251E_10843.pdf?sequence=1

15  Lewis, H. R. (2007). Excellence without a soul: Does liberal education have a future? New York: Public Affairs/Perseus Books.

16 Oviawe, J. (2013). Appropriating colonialism: Complexity and chaos in the making of a Nigeria-centric educational system (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved 6 January 2022 from https://research.wsulibs.wsu.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/2376/5022/Oviawe_wsu_0251E_10843.pdf?sequence=1

17 Brock-Utne, B. (2009). The adoption of the Western paradigm of bilingual teaching: Why does it not fit the African situation? In K. K. Prah & B. Brock-Utne (Eds.), Multilingualism: An African advantage. A paradigm shift in African language of instruction polices (pp. 18–51). Cape Town: Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS).

18 Holy Quran. Surat El Hashr. Aya 8& 9. Arabic version available at: http://quran.ksu.edu.sa/translations/english/546.html?a=5135 The translation is adapted by Riham Aziz El Din- 2022.

19  السنّة النبوية، حديث شريف- عن النعمان بن بشير -رضي الله عنه- مرفوعاً: «مَثَلُ المُؤْمِنِينَ في تَوَادِّهِمْ وتَرَاحُمِهِمْ وتَعَاطُفِهِمْ، مَثَلُ الجَسَدِ إذا اشْتَكَى مِنْهُ عُضْوٌ تَدَاعَى له سَائِرُ الجَسَدِ بالسَّهَرِ والحُمَّى».  
(صحيح)- (مُتفق عليه). The Translation in English is available at: https://hadeethenc.com/ar/browse/hadith/4969 Retrieved on January, 7th, 2022. 

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