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The Student News Site of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

The Online Beacon

The Online Beacon

The Online Beacon

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Ubuntu: An African Philosophy of Justice and Kindness, as told by MCLA Philosophy Professor Paul Nnodim

Cover of “Ubuntu”
Cover of “Ubuntu”

Simple kindness is something that is, unfortunately, absent in the modern world. In the Western world (referring to Oceania, North America, South America, and Europe) it is very common for individuals to pass judgment on those they don’t know or don’t understand, and forgiveness is something that is never guaranteed, but resentment is almost always a given. It is in the DNA of Americans to be individualistic and focus on the needs of themselves over others, and while it is important to prioritize oneself, the sense of community is long gone. It’s not necessarily the fault of these individuals either, for Americans are born and raised to see the worst in humanity, for better or for worse.

Other cultures, however, can possess values that are inherently more open-minded, that allow for forgiveness in the face of betrayal. MCLA’s own, philosophy professor Paul Nnodim, explores the African philosophy of Ubuntu in Ubuntu: A Comparative Study of an African Concept of Justice along with Austin Okigbo.

In an interview with The Beacon, Nnodim explains that the initial idea for Ubuntu came from, “an article that [he] wrote with a colleague at the University of Colorado, Boulder.” “It was a comparative study of Ubuntu and John Rawls, the great American philosopher, legal philosopher, who was a professor at Harvard University,” in addition to an “invitation from a series editor of Ethical Perspective, a journal of the University of Leuven in Belgium,” explains Nnodim.

Shortly after, an editor of the University of Leuven’s Ethical Perspective held a meeting with Nnodim to discuss a book deal, in which Nnodim suggested a book regarding Western philosophy, which the editor declined due to the oversaturation of coverage on the West’s philosophy in the academic sphere. When asked to come up with an idea that is not Western-centric, Nnodim highlighted the paper he had just written for the university’s journal, and after reading this paper, the editor offered Nnodim a book contract.

On the topic of how long it took Nnodim to complete the production of Ubuntu, the professor states that it “took almost three years. So that’s quite a long time.” Ubuntu, “is an edited book, so [Nnodim] didn’t write it alone. [He] co-wrote a chapter in the book, co-wrote the introduction, and co-wrote the conclusion.” Even though Nnodim didn’t write the entire book, it still required a lot of preparation, writing, and editing. 

“It started with, first of all, organizing a conference,” explains Nnodim, “so that was 2021…we organized a conference on the topic, and we had scholars coming, you know, from all over Europe, South Africa, here in the United States, Nigeria,” in addition to those who attended online from various other countries. “In the end,” Nnodim continues, “Some people whose works were actually very sophisticated became a part of our team of contributors.”

Nnodim further explains the book-writing process:

So from the time of organizing the conference, holding the conference, having people write papers on chapters and then editing these chapters, they’re writing the chapters themselves, putting everything together, working back and forth with the editors at Leuven University, it took three years. 

Nnodim explains more about the philosophy on its own, stating, “So we can look at the etymology, the idea of Ubuntu can be found almost everywhere in Africa.” “But the term Ubuntu originated from South Africa among the Nguni people,” states Nnodim, “so, you know, talking of the Zulu, for example, that’s part of the Nguni speaking group.”

“If we look at the etymology,” Nnodim explains, “it derives from the word Umuntu ngumuntu ngabuntu, Zulu for “a person is a person through other persons”], which means “human being.” This further proves that “Ubuntu is all about respect for your fellow human being. It’s about kindness, about the capacity to empathize with your fellow human being…so when people greet in Zulu, it simply means ‘I see you.’”

“If we go beyond that literal translation,” Nnodim continues, “it means I recognize you.” Nnodim highlights the importance of acknowledging the complexities and lives of each other, stating that, “when you do not recognize other people, they become shadows in [one’s] eyes.”

Nnodim explains that recognition and forgiveness heavily shape the values of Ubuntu. When considered in a Western context, westerners are less concerned with forgiveness and more concerned with the Western idea of justice. Westerners, “are most of the time more concerned with the legalistic aspects of justice…when we execute a murderer, there’s no closure for the victim’s family,” Nnodim states.

In the West, there is a lack of community and understanding for those who may need it the most, unlike Ubuntu, which was utilized in specific Ubuntu circles by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These circles brought people together to be, “face to face, confessing, reconciling, forgiving, and coming together as a community to find a common goal, common meaning in life, which is respect for the other person.”

Nnodim makes sure to highlight that, “ubuntu does not undermine the individual, ubuntu does not undermine the integrity of the individual, ubuntu does not undermine the rights and freedoms of the individual. However, the liberties are magnified and realized in the community.” “We are each other’s mirrors,” Nnodim states, “I don’t see myself, I see myself through you.”

 “So, when we ask people “Do you have ubuntu?’” Nnodim explains, “it simply means, ‘do you care for your fellow human being?’” Nnodim asks, “Do you empathize with them? Do you, you know, see their point of view in your life as they see your point of view [What we call reciprocity of perspectives?]” 

Nnodim showcases an example of a person who does not have Ubuntu, which in this case takes the form of someone very wealthy. “If you are a very rich person,” Nnodim states, “and you have all that wealth to yourself, you have no ubuntu.” In the Ubuntu ideology, “you’d be considered a wealthy person based on the number of people you’ve empowered in your community.”

 Students and faculty can access Nnodim’s deep dive into this African ideology of kindness at Leuven University Press, Cornell University Press, and Amazon.

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Angelina Clark, Web Editor

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