The Beautiful Concept of Ubuntu

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

After I had been staying in South Africa for about a year and a half, I received a call from my son here at home saying he was getting married. This was such joyous news! I began to plan a course whereby I could return home to attend and hopefully bring Jacob with me a few months later. This involved a whole new pursuit of legal approvals for him which was no easy feat. I purchased return tickets for us both as the excitement built. I also began to wonder what unique African gift I could bring along to the happy couple, and, as women do, ponder what I might wear to this glorious event.

To this end I drove into Durban one day on my search. There is a huge mall outside Durban at Westville, The Pavilion, but it is very similar to one you would find at home or anywhere for that matter. I knew to find something uniquely African meant a trip into the heart of the city. The traffic congestion and the busyness would normally put me off but I was a on a mission!

In and out of shops I went, into street facing stores and into tiny jam-packed hidden gems down secluded alleyways where the merchants offered a variety of authentic African wares. First I found a gorgeous bedspread complete with shams and skirt and arranged to have it sent home being much too large and bulky for my luggage. Task one accomplished, I then focused on finding a dress. The wee shops were overflowing, I mean stuffed, with goods both African and Indian. South Africa has the largest population of Indian people anywhere outside India so the influence is felt and seen everywhere. Those gowns were elaborate, vibrant and absolutely stunning! But I was after an African one, something that really represented the culture I love.

I stumbled across a shop with a dress in the window I just had to try on-you know how that it is when you see that item you’ve been searching for. I knew it when I saw it. The liaison with that garment evolved into a one-of-a-kind creation just for me! (Yes, I had checked with the bride and she had encouraged me to wear whatever I wished) As it turned out, many shopkeepers were actually tailors/seamstresses too so they were able to customize any gown. It was more than just a fitting. They could create a garment from a picture, or a description, or an idea from here and another from there. I don’t sew at all so to me this was astounding! Three weeks later my bespoke gown was ready and totally exclusive… and it told a story!

The 2 piece dress was so extraordinarily appropriate because I’d been staying with the Zulu people. The traditional, black, 3 legged, cooking kettle on the skirt represents “Ubuntu”. Ubuntu is the Zulu concept that “I am what I am because of who we all are”, or, “I am because you are”. Although the phrase is derived from the Zulu language, it is common in most African countries. This beautiful philosophy is based on sharing, that a person is a person through other people. Yes, it takes a village indeed. For example, when the sister of a dear friend there in South Africa went away to school, my friend gave her sister her new car to use during university while my friend took in her sister’s young child. There was no big negotiation. It was simply what necessity demanded. Circumstances determined the outcome which is so common in African culture and they do it without hesitation or reservations. Circumstances demanded they take care of one another’s needs.

It strikes me that as we age we can appreciate just how true that is. The needs we have throughout our lifetime have often required the intervention of others. All the folks in my life over the years have molded me into the person I am, both those I hold close, those I hold dear as friends or colleagues whether near or far, and even those who have been in my life only briefly. Each person we encounter brings something unique to us. Sometimes we may need loving comfort, understanding, strength or even criticism through a lesson learned. Sometimes we need to give it away. There are people who are along with us through our whole journey and others just for what seems to be a moment, a season, but they each contribute to our pathway in their unique way. Ubuntu is about community and connection. It’s about a support system. It’s about a cumulative effect that will occur over time shaping us into who we are. It’s about you, me and us. It’s about three.

A 3 legged traditional pot or a 3 legged stool will not stand with one portion cut off. If one leg doesn’t work the object has not use. Even business models have been developed using this concept. You need all three elements to function. How apropos for a new couple as they start out together in life. They would need strong family and community over the years as they face life’s ups and downs. “God’s knot” goes even further. It symbolizes a man, a woman and God coming together in marriage.

How apropos for any one of us especially as we age. In this time of life we may feel vulnerable and alone. We may be suffering with poor health or poor finances. Covid may also have exacerbated your situation. Our mental health has suffered greatly and people have discovered just how much we need one another…and God. There is You, Me and our Heavenly Father. I don’t know about you, but I cannot do it with just you and me. I need Heavenly Strength. The Bible explains it most beautifully in Ecclesiastes 4:12. “Though one can be overpowered, two can defend themselves. (But) A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

If you are feeling alone today please reach out to family or friends who would be glad to help. If this is not doable for whatever reason, there are many mental health options available too. Just ask your doctor. Or, if you simply want to chat take a virtual seat on the Friendship Bench here at and let’s share how we are feeling.