HomeLetters From South Sudan58. Ubuntu: Culture or Computer

58. Ubuntu: Culture or Computer

In 2004, South African business man, Mark Shuttelworth, released a computer operating
system which he called, ‘Ubuntu’. It is distributed by his UK-based company, Canonical
Limited, as free and open source software. Canonical creates revenue by selling technical
support and services for Ubuntu, while the operating system itself is offered free.

The word, ‘Ubuntu’, has its origin in the Bantu languages of southern Africa. Archbishop
Desmond Tutu has explained Ubuntu in these terms:

‘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.’

Maybe Shuttleworth wanted to capitalise on this notion of generosity. Yet, as I come
across many poor but happy children in Africa, I think it would be a great pity – and
unfortunate irony – if they were to come to think of Ubuntu as a computing term. I value
the capacity computers give to communicate but the same computers also have the
capacity to isolate and interefere with human interaction. Computer communication is far
short of the rich notion of interconnectedness that Archbishop Tutu is describing.
Elsewhere Tutu wrote:

‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel
threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes
from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are
humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. We think of ourselves far too
frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas we are connected and
what we do affects the whole world.’

Another author, Gbowee, describes Ubuntu in these terms: ‘I am what I am because of who
we all are.’. What stands out in Africa is the security and happiness people seem to feel
within their own tribal group. I wish strongly for a more united South Sudan but not at
the expense of losing Ubuntu.

Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves but rather, if they do,
their enrichment should also assist the community around them to improve. Many people
experience Ubuntu in the Church in Southern Sudan, an interconnectedness and concern
for the good of all in the community. I experience Ubuntu as a member of my religious
congregation and also as a member of Solidarity with Southern Sudan. The children of
Southern Sudan grow up experiencing Ubuntu in their families and local community.

We have just finished our annual gathering in Wau where there were evident aspects of
Ubuntu – our team members being open and available, affirming, belonging to a greater
whole. I surmise, something akin to Ubuntu probably existed in Europe in feudal times but
was diminished and even lost as societies became increasingly industrialised and
commercialised. Unfortunately, the personal accumulation of wealth – too often at the
expense of others – may have supplanted Ubuntu.

During our gathering we had a delightful outing to Bussera, about 30kms from Wau,
where there was once a thriving mission centre and seminary. In this rural situation, the
lifestyle is not grand and may present a first impression of decay. Yet I sensed there is
happiness, not from what people now have but from who they are and what they share as
part of their community. They are made stronger by Ubuntu. They sit together, fish
together and are together. As the African proverb says: ʻA single straw of a broom can be
broken easily, but the straws together are not easily broken.’ Finding a way to keep the straws in
the various African states together is the real problem.

-Br Bill