Ubuntu: The African Virtue and Cultural Foundations of the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa

October 29, 2012

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa are more deeply understood by examining the cultural philosophy and ethic of Ubuntu, the foundation of many traditional African societies. Ubuntu was considered to be the ultimate African virtue. Ubuntu expressed itself as: respect full humans and human life, interdependence, empathy, harmony, solidarity, and sharing, caring, characteristics found in many, if not most, African societies.

As the organizing virtue and principle in traditional African life, Ubuntu was embedded in everyday lives of African people. Put straightforward: Ubuntu was the most definitive way of being African and by extension human. Munyaradzi Murove writes:

A person who has Ubuntu is someone who puts the concerns of others before his or her own. In this way of living, the person does not do something good because of a god’s commandments; rather the person does something good because it is primarily what it means to be human.

Further, Ubuntu was a concrete ethic that placed the individual squarely in association with the community (Umoja) and was made manifest through human action: how a person related to others was a major indicator of his or her humanness. Individuals were not seen as self-sufficient and independent. To the contrary, the worldview (Kujichagulia) expressed through Ubuntu promoted interdependence as true reality and necessitated that a person be responsive to the needs of others (Ujima and Ujamaa). In the context of Ubuntu, individuality meant being with others, with emphasis on cooperation and teamwork.

It follows then that obligation to the community, which the family was embedded, was of critical importance. Seeing oneself as an inseparable connection with the community carried with it an obligation to promote the interest of the community, to be in harmony with the members of the community, and to see one’s own life chances as inescapably linked with that of the community.

Accordingly, it is this cardinal virtue that gives  7 Principles of Kwanzaa its grounding as a set of values consistent with the life-affirming virtue of Ubuntu. This powerful African word carried with it the culture of traditional African society and thus philosophical underpinning of the Kwanzaa principles.

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