Last week, my niece posted a photograph of her new tattoo: hands, holding the Earth, with the word “Ubuntu” inscribed below it.

The next day, I met singer/songwriter Sara Thomsen, and saw her project booklet (from an event combining music, art, poetry), titled Ubuntu.

On the third day, I walked into my brother’s home in Chicago and immediately saw a sign, “I am because we are”. In other words, ubuntu.

Some, perhaps many, people would have me believe this is a great example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (also known as frequency illusion). But that would remove all of the magic and wonder from the experience of such synchronicities – and I believe that magic and wonder are absolutely necessary these days. I refuse to give them up in the name of psychology.

I first heard the word and concept of ubuntu in a televised interview with Desmond Tutu 20 years ago. He roughly translated it as “A person is a person through other people” – I remember it because I immediately wrote it in my journal so I wouldn’t forget. It spoke to me very deeply of what I knew in my heart but always had difficulty articulating: namely, that we are all intimately connected with one another. The concept has a long history, and has been translated in various ways, though maintaining throughout it’s essential character. Ubuntu is about relationships. (See more history here)

Though I haven’t had a chance to ask her yet, my niece Hallie most likely became aware of the concept because of her love for and travels to Africa. Hallie is our social justice warrior, our peacemaker, our world citizen. Ubuntu is a concept she has understood since she was quite young, regardless of when she learned the word that names it. Hallie has a heart for the world and will fight for equality and opportunity and fairness for all. When I saw the beautiful photo of her tattoo I couldn’t help but feel emotional. ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours,” she declares. It is written on her body.

I met Sara Thomsen when she was one of the facilitators for our annual spirituality conference. I had heard several of her songs, and have been especially drawn to this one, “Water is Life”. After the first evening session of the conference, a few of us went out for dinner. That’s where I heard about Sara’s commitment to art as a unifying force in the world. In particular, I learned about her work with the Echoes of Peace community choir, and their “Art of Ubuntu” project. And while our dinner was a serendipitous celebration of Cinco de Mayo with new-found friends, our laughter was underscored by a mutual understanding so beautifully stated in this quote from the “Art of Ubuntu” project materials:

It is like the Beloved Community, the “network of mutuality” of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke…   “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be.”

Immediately after closing our conference on Saturday, I drove to Chicago. The main reason for the trip was to see my niece Zoe in the role of Veruca Salt, in her school production of “Willy Wonka”. (She was awesome!) After the play, I found myself in an Irish pub, surrounded by women I love and admire. Our discussion ranged all over, but eventually found it’s way back to politics every time. It was an incredible experience to, once again, be surrounded by fierce women who are taking action in whatever ways they can to create a world where ubuntu is the dominant paradigm. “I am because we are”, as the sign in my brother’s living room declares.

Ubuntu: I so needed this repetition of the concept. I refuse to chalk it up to a mere mental trick or illusion. When you are parched and thirsty, water is always a miracle, not only a chemical compound of hydrogen and oxygen. More than anything, I needed the reminder that there are many others who hold ubuntu in their hearts. It is inspiring and affirming and it offers me energy for whatever this day or the next may bring.

The fire in my heart, my soul flame burning
Is the fire in your heart, your soul flame burning
We are Spirit burning bright, by the light of day, in the dark of night
We are shining like the sun, and like the moon, like the Holy One

By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit, we are all one

— Sara Thomsen, from “By Breath”

2 thoughts on “Ubuntu

  1. Thank you so much for this much-needed reminder, Jen! It’s been a really, really tough time for me in the recent weeks and months, and this helps me keep the big picture in mind and my place in it. Love! Amy

    1. Amy, thanks for writing. First, I’m sorry things have been so tough. But I’m glad if this post, in any way, helps with perspective. Writing it was therapeutic for me!

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