“I am because you are.” Ubuntu Philosophy – Interdependence
We are all individuals, yet we are all also part of families, schools, teams and peer groups. Our identities are shaped by what we think of ourselves and the groups we are a part of. The value of interdependence is hard to appreciate because we often want to focus on our own accomplishments and struggle to give others credit for helping us get them. Yet acknowledging the role others play in our success is very important.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts, with guests James Ogude, Director at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria, South Africa and United States high school social studies teacher Gwynne Ryan for a conversation about interdependence using the Teach Different 3-Step conversation method.
Image source: Piqsels
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation technique, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, or parent who sees the value of meaningful conversations, and wants to join a movement to rebuild human relationships post pandemic, and fight polarization, then listen to this podcast, learn our method, and join our professional learning community at teachdifferent.com.
Dan Fouts 00:35
Welcome everybody to the Teach Different podcast. We’re really excited this week to have a couple of guests with us. One is a colleague of mine from my school outside of Chicago, and he’s also a professor from South Africa, James Ogude. He will introduce himself in a minute. We have a really profound and philosophical quote today. As philosophical as it is, we think our listeners could share this quote with their students to have a rich discussion about its meaning and value. That’s the purpose, right? With the Teach Different method for conversations, we start by introducing the quote, then we’ll talk about the claim of the quote. Next, we’ll push against it and talk about the counterclaim of the quote. We’ll end with provocative questions. At the end of this experience, listeners will have a quote to use in class and a conversation to replicate. With that introduction, our quote tonight captures the heart and soul of Ubuntu philosophy in Africa. “I am because you are.” James, thank you so much for joining us today. What is your interpretation of this quote?
James Ogude 02:16 – Claim
Thank you, Dan, and thank you for inviting me to share some of my thoughts with you. I’m really excited that the interview I had with the BBC intrigued you into wanting to have a conversation with me around the concept of Ubuntu. Let me tell you briefly about myself. I am a professor of African literature and am currently at the University of Pretoria where I lead a research center called the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship. This center works with a whole range of disciplines. It is a transdisciplinary Center which brings together faculties of Humanities and Science and other related areas of scholarship. It is for this reason that I became interested in the idea of Ubuntu. Some time back, about five or six years ago, the Templeton World Charity Foundation honored the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his excellent work in trying to build bridges between people, especially during the time when he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa during the immediate post independence period. The idea was, how can we use the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring about healing to foster relationships of understanding and forgiveness across racial divides, across ethnicities, across class interests. So, they decided to honor Archbishop Tutu for the work that he had done. During the process, they also requested a number of South African Universities to compete for funding in order to deepen our understanding of the concept of Ubuntu, which Archbishop Tutu used to build bridges between people. His idea was that we don’t have to look elsewhere, because we have a concept that can help us bring about redress among ourselves. That concept has to be rooted in our own cultures. Now, Ubuntu is a Southern African word, which, as Dan said, means “I am because you are,” or “we are because you are.” It is at the core of Ubuntu, this idea of interdependence. For human beings, it means that the full development of humanity comes with a shared identity. Humanity can only be fostered in a network of relationships. You cannot foster individuals. Our common humanity cannot be fostered in isolation. It can only be fostered once we begin to relate with one another. This is a fundamental principle that you will find in all ecosystems. You are teachers, so I’m sure you know that all organisms in an ecosystem depend on each other. Interdependence is a very basic principle, whether you’re talking about animals or plants. Even amongst insects that we might think are not useful. We all know that the survival of human beings and plants depends, for example, on bees and butterflies. It’s a basic principle that 30% of the food we eat is cross pollinated by bees. We depend on the totality of our ecosystem.
James Ogude 07:53
Ubuntu is a relational idea, or personhood. It is about our sociality as human beings. We become people because we belong to a social network. That’s what makes us what we are. We participate in socially generated norms and values. We learn to live from some of these values, because we have generated them among ourselves as a community of people. So, that’s basically what Ubuntu is all about. We live in a network of relationships, and it’s these networks of relationships that really make us who and what we are. In Western societies, for example, the principle of individualism is privileged. People tend to think that there’s a problem when you say that we depend on each other, because they think it threatens their individuality. That’s not entirely true. In a number of African communities, especially those that rely on communalism and the elements of this network of relationships, individualism is still respected. The only thing is that we encourage debate. We encourage building consensus around issues, and the building of consensus has to be done in the interest of everybody. All people have to buy in when we are building consensus. Even in Western societies that cherish the principle of individual autonomy, there is a sense in which a measure of basic human rights and our responsibility to others is required of us. They don’t just leave you to do whatever you want. There’s a sense in which we have a stake in the community that we come from. We have a stake today in the environment that we live in. You can’t just decide that you’re exercising your individual freedom, and destroy the ecosystem around you willy nilly.
Steve Fouts 11:10
There’s a lot there. James, you’ve already brought up individualism and individuality. Would you briefly talk about the difference between those two words, individuality and individualism, and then connect it back to the philosophy.
James Ogude 11:39
Thank you. Those are two very interesting concepts that we tend to collapse. I’m glad you brought it up, Steve. There’s a difference between individualism and individuality. Individualism is self referential, if you understand what I mean. In other words, it basically tends to promote the self at the expense of all else. Individualism is self centered, whereas individuality means that as human beings, all of us, even animals, have a measure of independence. That independence has to be fostered within a specific framework that requires you to have a responsibility to the ecosystem around you, to people around you. That’s the basic distinction. To put it crudely, individualism constantly emphasizes the “I.” Individuality implies the growth and development of you as a person, but it does not contradict your responsibility to those around you, be they people or animals, you still have a responsibility to them.
Steve Fouts 11:42
That’s very helpful.
Dan Fouts 12:38
That’s really good. James, one thing that we like to do with these quotes, is to bring them down to a level that students can understand. We all teach, or taught, high school. What popped in my head is something as simple as a basketball team, where a player has their own unique individual skills and is able to flourish as an individual, but the success, happiness, and flourishing of that individual is dependent upon the team. The team has to be healthy in order for that individual to be able to express him or herself. Does that analogy make sense as a way to think about this?
James Ogude 14:37
That’s a brilliant analogy. In every single team you will find people who are talented. In football, you have a good striker, but a good striker may need good midfielders or good skippers in order for them to score. They can’t score on their own. They have to rely on others. That’s why you will find that players who tend to be selfish, even when they’re talented, may end up undermining the biggest spirit of the team. The team spirit becomes extremely important. As human beings, we all rely on each other. In a classroom, if you find a child, for example, who is constantly wanting to answer all the questions, chances are that they are also very bad listeners, because they don’t want to hear other’s views. However terrible those views are, you must be in a position to listen to other views. I still remember how we used to compete in primary school when a question was asked, me, me, me, me, and sometimes the answer was so terrible. I started working as a high school teacher, and one of the things that we were taught during what we call micro teaching, was that you must always encourage the introverted in your class to speak, because sometimes they have some of the best ideas, but they end up being overshadowed by those who are very dramatic, those who are extroverted. Not that you don’t want extroverts in your class. You do want them, but you also want to encourage them to listen so that they can learn from their classmates. The basketball team is a brilliant example. I was a basketball player, by the way, during my high school days, and I was not good at shooting, but I was a good midfielder.
Steve Fouts 17:22
I am trying to picture this quote on the board. Students from a high, middle, or elementary school class, walk in and “I am because you are” is on the board. They get a few minutes to think about it and to come up with their own definition of what it means, not knowing anything about the context. Gwynne, Dan, or James, if you had to put yourself in the mind of an adolescent, a student who hasn’t had big thoughts like this put in front of them, how would they react to this? Would there be any confusion? Is clarification needed? Would you need to circle one of the words and go deeper into it? It’s an open question. I’m wondering how they will react.
Gwynne Ryan 19:01
I’d like to share an example. I teach sociology. I spent a lot of hours watching the Truth and Reconciliation tapes, and it is an extraordinarily powerful idea. That’s where I was first introduced to this idea, and then another sociology teacher really embedded this as a sort of a practice in the classroom for me. One of the things that I tell my students when I’m talking about sociology, like you were explaining how we collectively create norms and ideas and our own identities, is that I cannot have the title of teacher without the students present in my classroom. The classroom itself doesn’t function without each other. I try to get students to think about how we are interdependent and interconnected and how our identities are made from the people we interact with. To your question, Steve, how do we get students to see this? I guess I’m always coming up with questions. How do we, as teachers, model it so that students can see those connections? I think your example, Dan, of the sports team is really good. That was my secondary question. To answer the question that you asked about which word I would circle, I guess I would circle “I am.”
James Ogude 20:51
Yeah, you made the point that you circle “I am,” and that immediately signals something, but then people probably also circle “you are.” The question is how do you create any form of mutuality out of this tool? I am, you are. How do they speak to each other? There are many examples. Kids come from homes, and homes are important points of reference in terms of networks or fostering identities. You have a mother, a father, a sister, and maybe brothers. Homes are not just about harmony. Homes are also about competing interests and tensions. There are sibling tensions. How do siblings negotiate tensions among themselves? I was listening to a program yesterday that was talking about when you have a young child, around four years old, and the mom is expecting another child, and is looking at the mom seeing that the mom is changing in many ways, physically, and sometimes even emotionally. When the child asks the mom, what is going on? What do you tell the child? How do you prepare the child to tell him that you are carrying a brother or a sister? How will you deal with problems of jealousy or sibling rivalry? When we talk about Ubuntu, people think that Ubuntu just means harmony, that there are no tensions or competing interests among human beings, but it is really about how the “I” gets into conversation with the other. How the “I” enters into discourse with those other elements around him. Helping kids realize that although you are an individual, you are constantly, sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes very deliberately, choosing your friends, and things you like. All these things shape you. They shape your identity. If you don’t want to listen in class, there’s a price to pay for it.
Steve Fouts 24:31
That’s an interesting way to bring it down to earth a little bit more than the idea of “I am.” Talking about being who you are as a compilation of your choices that you make in life has a grounding that makes sense. I think that could be a good starting point for the students. The choices are what we differ on. Very important choices need to be made as to whether or not we’re going to care about the environment. Are we going to care about other people? Are we going to want to be part of a team and give up a little bit of our independence for something greater? Those are all choices. I like that as a way to bring it down.
James Ogude 25:37
Really a brilliant point, Steve. You can tell your students that you are a biological entity, but there are many other biological entities out there. You also engage in some form of rational thinking, and that rational thinking forces you to make certain deliberate choices. Sometimes you make mistakes, and you have to live with the consequences of those mistakes. Our interdependence is what brings about what we call self-actualization. The principle of self-actualization is contingent upon those other elements. Those are the forces within our environment that we interface with, be they human beings, animals, even rocks, rivers, and mountains. All of these things have a lot to do with the idea of self-actualization and self-actualization can never happen in isolation.
Gwynne Ryan 27:21
Can I ask a question?
James Ogude 27:23
Gwynne Ryan 27:25
In the BBC short video, you mentioned a story of a grandfather and granddaughter in debt. She asked about why he is always looking back. He said that the answers are in the past. I think about this idea of connecting the “I” and the “we” in the story that makes each of us who we are. In my classes, we talk a lot about socialization, and how those pieces of the past have produced the person we are today. You can make choices to live deliberately in the future, to connect the past and the present with this concept of the I and the we. Is there a connection between that statement, and the idea of looking into the past?
James Ogude 28:37
One of the reasons why I linger on the past is because every time we talk about indigenous concepts, such as Ubuntu, people tend to dismiss them, because they think these things belong to the past. Why are you excavating them? Why do you bring them up? I’m very conscious of the fact that we can learn a great deal from our past. If there’s anything that we have learned in the age in which human beings have made such an impact on our environment, and changed it in fundamental ways, is how our ancestors, white and black, lived in the past. There’s something that one can learn from the ways these people we’re constantly striving to create a balance within our ecosystem. When you talk about the past people think that you’re talking about a buried essence, but we carry our past with us in the form of memories. What is it that we can remember? What is it that we carry with us that can help us grapple with the present? Any child, any human being, who forgets, or does not have a sense of memory, may not be in a position to navigate the present, or think about the future. That’s why I was saying that perhaps what we need to do as human beings is to look back and ask ourselves about the positive things that we are carrying with us. What has mortality destroyed in its wake or rampant individualism? All societies have this and in order for you to evoke them, you need to go to the memory bank of the past. We carry this past with us. I’ve been doing comparative studies across the globe. When I started working on Ubuntu, I thought that it was just a concept that you find in Africa, but that’s not true. We discovered that there are similar concepts among Latin Americans. I gave a keynote some time back at a conference, and an Indian lady said, I really liked your lecture, because it echoes what I’m doing with our local community. When you engage in what you’re saying and go to our communities to talk about these big words around climate change, like global warming, what does it mean? What kind of grammar are you using that speaks to what people know? Do they understand? These problems have been here for years and years. In South Africa, we are grappling with serious problems of floods. All that we are doing is blaming the government. We are not asking what kind of institutions we have that could be mobilized, that we used in the past to help us address some of the problems that we’re facing today. You find communities living in homes without a single tree. Not a single tree. They are exposed to the vagaries of nature. The basic lesson that we learn is that if you want to create wind breaks, you start by planting trees around you. The trees also help you in many other ways. They also protect against erosion. There are basic things that people know and understand. Your house was not built for this kind of environment. The architect is wrong. For me, going back to some of these, what I call banished knowledges. These are knowledges that have been oppressed, but could still be very useful. Every single human society has some of this knowledge that they can fall back on. That’s what I was thinking about, falling back on our memory bank and teaching kids that there’s something that you can learn from history. When you are teaching a history lesson, one of the things they tell us is that if you don’t remember your history, you end up repeating the same mistakes. It’s basically about memory and the past.
Steve Fouts 35:40
I think that’s why this quote is so powerful, because it’s so simple. It’s so short, but when you unpack it you get into things like how do we look at the past? How are we seen? What’s our role in life and in the future? What decisions are we making? It’s all tied up in this short quote that has so much power.
James Ogude 36:09
Steve Fouts 36:13 – Counterclaim
This is my role, James. We come to a point in the conversation where we want to think about a counterclaim. Does anyone have something on their mind as a way to look at this from a different perspective? I have something that is quick that I’d like to start with. James, I’ve gotten most of my 20 year teaching experience in an urban setting, on the west side of Chicago. The type of neighborhoods my students came from, we use the phrase underserved. They had challenges that you don’t associate with most kids, even with normal nuclear families. You referenced families earlier as a model to draw on to understand interdependence. Let me just share this thought to start the counterclaim or another perspective. If I were to put this quote in front of my students, “I am because you are,” I think that they would share some experiences from the past, where they can’t always rely on others. There are people in their lives who you wouldn’t call great role models, maybe even people who are threatening or that you’re not getting along with. They’re in a situation where they have to be vigilant. They have to protect themselves. If they don’t think of themselves first, then they’re going to be in a vulnerable situation. The quote might get a little pushback from that perspective. I’m just trying to come up with another way that the kids might think of this and where they just haven’t received the benefit of a community. Maybe they have, but they don’t know. So I’ll just start that off. I don’t know if that made sense.
James Ogude 39:24
It makes a lot of sense. One of the things that we faced when we started our study on the concept of Ubuntu was that people were asking us, “Where does Ubuntu exist?” Where is it? You’re talking about our moral obligation to others, and yet the world that we live in is a man eats man, or a woman eats woman world. Either way, it is a difficult world that you’re talking about. Where does Ubuntu exist? We were doing this work when South Africa was undergoing a major problem of xenophobia. A society was created on the back of this powerful principle called Ubuntu, based on forgiveness, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, and acceptance of other people’s humanity, yet, the same society was fighting those who had come to live with them. How do you explain that kind of contradiction? How do you do that? What we realized was that Ubuntu has to be seen as an ideal, something we are striving towards. It offers possibilities. It may not be here now, but it offers possibilities for change, for renewal, for looking at our world in a different way. What we did was we created a play. This play was crafted around xenophobia. We took it around to encourage discussions with people, even the communities that were hostile. We now see our frailties, our weaknesses, and that we can do better. They kept telling us to take this play around, because it affects us. We reminded them that when you were struggling for your independence, most of your people went to other places, and they were welcomed, they were taken care of. Now, you don’t want those same people back. What does that tell you? Ultimately, the point that I’m making, Steve, is that the skeptical student coming out of Chicago who is marginalized, may not see value in this concept called Ubuntu. The world in which they live is survival of the fittest, but how do we reverse the survival of the fittest? How do we reverse that? That’s the challenge that we have as human beings. We position Ubuntu as aspirational. It is an ideal that people need to aspire to. We may not be there. How do you conceive of Christian society that believes in the principle of love, and yet they discriminate against other people? How do you deal with people who believe in the ultimate protection of Allah, but go out and murder in their name? How do you deal with that? The challenge is that it is about the erosion of those very values that they ought to be aspiring to and practicing. Just because values have been killed by human behavior, does not mean that we cannot go back to the beginning and re-engineer things afresh. I sound like a preacher.
Steve Fouts 44:33
James, I love it in you, because it’s aspirational. It’s an ideal. That helps. That might be a word to have in the back of your mind before you introduce it to students, because they will be skeptical. Teach them about what an ideal and aspiration is. I think that would add a lot to this. I came up with one more skeptical angle on this. We talk to the kids about not following their peers when they’re doing certain things. Don’t succumb to peer pressure. Make your own choices. Some may understand that to be a counterclaim to “I am because you are.” We’re telling students not to get caught up in the community that might be getting into trouble. I’m just thinking out loud here. I’d love to hear from Dan and Gwynne on this as well.
Gwynne Ryan 45:45
One of the things I was thinking of when I was listening to you, was about people being proud of what they have done as an individual. Many people who faced adversity, or difficult times, but persisted through it are proud of themselves as individuals. They had to help their family with finances by getting a job. They did that and want to be proud of that. How do I reconcile being proud of my own choices, actions, and successes as an individual, when I didn’t feel that I got help from anybody else? How do we reconcile that feeling of wanting to be proud of our own achievements?
Dan Fouts 46:51
That’s really good. I was thinking something along those lines, too. People like to be individually happy about what they’ve accomplished. They sometimes want to separate themselves from the community, and make themselves feel better. I was also just thinking of a counterclaim. A philosopher in western society, James, I’m sure you’ve heard of him, Rene Descartes. He was famous for uttering the words, “I think, therefore I am.” You could twist it and say, I am because I think. That is what a lot of people would interpret this as. That’s focusing on the individualism aspect. Going back to what you said previously, or to build on what Steve said about the community where you taught, what if you wrote “I am because I survive?” Survival itself is the source of my identity and meaning. That’s hard for certain people to shake. To say, well, no, it’s the community with you.
Steve Fouts 48:14
This is where I’m going to take a page out of James’s book. When they start talking like that, I think you need to slow it down and ask, you are because you survive. It’s a mean world where you can’t depend on anybody. You’re not into the community. I get it. Is this the way you would want the world to be? Have you ever experienced a situation or gone through something where you had to rely on others, and you were thankful? I don’t care who you are, everyone has had the experience of benefiting from being part of a whole. I think that’s where you really get them to think of the ideal.
Dan Fouts 49:13
That pops a question in my head, Steve, about trust. How do you learn to trust others? Maybe that would be an interesting question to come from this conversation?
James Ogude 49:30
Yeah, with this difficult issue what I always tell people is that Ubuntu is a consciousness, it’s an awareness that we carry with us. Part of that awareness comes with a moral obligation, a moral obligation for others. The UN came up with this concept called responsibility to protect. It came soon after the silence that followed the Rwandan genocide. Why when people are being killed are people folding their arms, sitting back and watching? How do you, as an organization, live with this? They came up with this thing that there must be a moment when the so called serenity of states has to stop somewhere, and humanity has to intervene and exercise that responsibility to protect the others. Right now, we are witnessing what is going on in Ukraine. There’s a whole range of blame going on. Just because things have been going on does not mean that we stand outside and look indifferently. We have a moral obligation in moments like that. I challenge my students who say that they’ve always done things on their own. My own dad died when I was pretty young, and I believe I worked very hard to become the second graduate in the family, and eventually moved on to be a professor. But, I’m also equally aware that my brother had to sacrifice to pay fees for me. I was hard working, but my brother sacrificed. I lived with other people who sacrificed. It’s very easy to slip into that way of thinking. It’s partly because of the emphasis that we place on individualism, that you have to be self driven, and you have to achieve this. You have to be competitive, because the world is difficult. Sometimes we press the wrong buttons. You can be competitive to a point where you actually destroy yourself. You have no people, and you end up committing suicide. They’re driven to a point where they don’t see their link with the bigger society, and the bigger humanity. The Swahili people have an expression called kenanga hatua juu ya mtu, step on somebody and move. It doesn’t matter. You can step on anybody as long as the end justifies the means. That’s the wrong principle. The end does not always justify, and should not justify, the means. You can’t trample on people’s rights. You tell yourself, I’m great, I arrived here in spite of all this. The trail of blood that you leave behind, or the trail of misery that you leave behind you matters. That’s what I like about Ubuntu. It forces us to constantly realize to return the gaze. Bakhtin, the Russian writer of Dialogic Imagination, tells us that until you look into another person’s pupil and their gaze is returned, your humanity is denied. When I moved to South Africa, I realized that a basic ritual such as a greeting was taken very seriously. I would come down from my office to go to a cafe area looking for a small bite, and I would see the cashier at the counter, and ask for a sandwich. The woman would look at me and say, how are you? Basically saying are you seeing me? Please see me. I’m so engrossed in my own world, that I’m not seeing her as a human being serving me. You can’t even say hi or goodbye. She just looks at me, until I say how are you? These are very small things, but they speak to us about how recognition becomes very important. Sharing recognition of the other becomes a very important aspect. Recognition of your student, that there’s a human being standing in front of me.
Dan Fouts 56:17
They’re small things, but the point is that they’re really big things. Over time, the small things add up to some really big things and ways to interact with people in healthy ways. Well James, we’re out of time. I wish we weren’t. We’ve had a wonderful hour with you, and we really appreciate your time. We’re trying to help teachers and students learn to have these conversations about ideas that are really important for us to all think about. I think the one today about interdependence, and “I am because you are,” is an important one. We thank you for graciously offering your time and sharing your wisdom with us today.
Steve Fouts 57:11
Did we get an essential question?
Dan Fouts 57:13
We had a couple.
Steve Fouts 57:14 – Essential Question
You had one. What was it? How do we know when to trust people? Gwynne or James, did anything pop out to you as a good summary question?
Gwynne Ryan 57:34
I liked the question that James said. I’m looking for it in my very unorganized notes. What is the connection between “I am” and “you are?” Or, what is the cause? What is the connection between “I am” and “you are?” That’s what stuck out to me.
James Ogude 57:54
Yeah, brilliant question, because it really talks about our mutuality. Our mutuality and conviviality are two fundamental things that keep us going, not just as human beings in relation to other persons, but as human beings in relation to the totality of our environment. I think that is very important.
Steve Fouts 58:32
Thank you so much.
Dan Fouts 58:35
James, I’ll be in touch through email about when the podcast will be public. We’ll give you the link to it. We encourage you to share it with any of your networks. We want to just thank you again for being here. It was really nice.
James Ogude 58:54
Yeah, thank you. It was a wonderful conversation. I’m glad I accepted it. I received so many requests from people who wanted to do similar podcasts, and I turned them down. I’m glad that I accepted your invitation. Sometimes you get tired of repeating yourself. Thank you all. I’ll be visiting your shores in May. I’m going to Duke for a meeting. I wish Duke was a little closer to Chicago. Okay, goodbye people.
Dan Fouts 59:38
Take care, James.
James Ogude 59:40
Yeah. Lovely talking to you.
Dan Fouts 59:43
Yep. Bye, bye.
Dan Fouts 59:49
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art of conversations to fight polarization and rebuild our human relationships. Teach Different is your place to get the support and encouragement to make it happen. Join our professional learning community at teachdifferent.com We hope to see you soon. Take care