Happy Africa Month. For a while now, I have been reflecting on my African heritage more critically. In my personal quest to understand it more deeply, I have found wisdom that I believe can profoundly impact us all, as people and as communicators.
This African philosophy has enamoured me since I was 14 and I’d like to take this moment to unpick its importance for the future of communications.
Ubuntu is a south African proverb that says, ‘I am, because we are’. In principle, it is about community, interdependence, and empathy. To put it plainly, Ubuntu explains that ‘we are persons because of other persons; our humanity is tied to each other’. Because many wrongly perceive that this African philosophy disagrees with our current agenda of individualism here in the West, they often disregard its fundamental importance and how it can impact us all in our ways of life.
So, why should Ubuntu become a fundamental principle in communications?
First, Ubuntu is essential if we are to develop effective communication across cultural barriers. With globalisation must come the recognition that our communities are changing to become increasingly more diverse; according to the Race Disparity Audit commissioned in 2018, about 13.8% of the UK population is from a minority ethnic background with London having 40% of its population from a Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic background. Understanding the communities we now live in has never been more essential for communicators. Ubuntu believes in empathy and connectivity that can help us identify and appreciate points of difference without being afraid or uncomfortable.
Secondly, I argue that Ubuntu is the ‘spice’ we need for our white colleagues to become less disingenuous about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois, “there have been few other cases in history where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.” Years on, this indifference shows itself when we talk about matters of DEI. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating to sit across from (often white) colleagues and realise that equity is something you must teach, or witness their disinterest in using their creativity to address issues that aren’t theirs.
One of Ubuntu’s key value systems is that of taking interest in your fellow man. When we take time to learn more about one another, what we find is common ground – and, more importantly, what we find is ‘humanity’. When we start seeing each other fully and less like caricatures, we find glimpses of ourselves in each other; we find something worth fighting for.
Lastly, I believe Ubuntu is the key to a new type of business model, one that is ethical. Some people may argue that Ubuntu is bad business. My question then becomes: Why is the standard of business fundamentally unethical? Communications functions often serve as the mouthpiece of businesses, but they can be so much more. They can serve as means to hold businesses accountable. The philosophy of Ubuntu rightly asserts, ‘each of us belongs and owes to the community’. This co-agency is essential for businesses to become more ethical when it comes to how they treat their people, their customers, and their planet.
These are just a few key insights I have understood from my studies about Ubuntu. There is so much more to learn, and I hope to write about it more often and more fluently in future.
Happy Africa Month.