Someone recently asked me to describe my abroad experience in one word. At first I dismissed this request because it asked me to oversimplify a complex and transformative experience into one discrete word. I wondered how I could possibly sum up my three week experience teaching in a township in South Africa into one word and what benefit could come from such an exercise until I stumbled on a quote from Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of South Africa. In this quote he explains the African philosophy of Ubuntu:“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
When I read this, I knew which word described almost every experience I had in South Africa: Ubuntu.
In Ikamva Lisizwe school in Kenton-on-Sea, where I taught, Ubuntu was a daily exercise. Ikamva is a fee-free school where many students ate their only meal of the day during the afternoon break and where paper was a limited luxury. These challenges, however, did not stop the generous spirits who worked and lived there. Everyday the mamas (the mothers of the community) would come to Ikamva and cook food for all the students as well as for us. Students worked together, answered together, and helped each other, not for recognition or gain, but simply because they knew they succeeded or failed as a team, as a community: Ubuntu.
Our main host mother, Mrs. Christine, also taught us a lesson about Ubuntu. Most of our nights ended with lesson planning in Mrs. Christine’s living room. It was winter in South Africa so the nights got pretty cold and electricity is expensive so heat was not always as high as some of us may have liked it. To mitigate the chilly climate, most of us drank tea called Rooibos, or African Red Tea. The first night I went into the kitchen to make myself a cup, Mrs. Christine was sitting by the table reading. She looked over and saw me making tea and uttered some simple words that would define most of my evenings: “Tea for one…Tea for all.” From then on, whenever one of us made tea, it wasn’t just for ourselves; we made tea for everyone, because, like the students at Ikamva, we were a team, we rose together or failed together and we would help each other however we could: Ubuntu.
These are two simple examples of Ubuntu, but it covertly defined my experience in South Africa and is something I carried back with me. But as I left South Africa, the country of contrast that experienced a century of Apartheid, and returned to Goucher, I came back with a new lens with which to see our community, our Ubuntu. Just like the students in Ikamva Lisizwe school, we rise and fall together. And when I say we, I don’t mean just students. In case you hadn’t noticed, students are not the only people at Goucher. When I say we, I mean students, faculty, and staff; I mean everyone. Too often since I’ve returned, and I have been guilty of this too, I’ve seen students walk right by the people who make their dorm life livable without as much as a hello, or students receiving food from a staff member without a thank you. Its only when we stop seeing each other as “isolated individuals” and start focusing on our interconnectedness as a community that we can can find our own Ubuntu.
So the one word that described my abroad experience, Rural and Township Education in Grahamstown, South Africa, is Ubuntu: the essence of being human in connection to others, to everyone. And if there is one way I want to bring my abroad experience home to Goucher, it is by spreading the message and hope of Ubuntu to our campus.