Sunday, April 9, 2017

I am because we are

I just finished reading the book Sundowner Ubuntu by Anthony Bidulka, published in 2007. This is part of his series of books featuring private investigator Russell Quant of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I tend not to read mysteries, mostly because the stories are usually about murder. But I started this series because Quant is gay and many of the people in the book, both his friends and the people he investigates, are also lesbian or gay. The plot frequently is about some aspect of the gay experience.

Thankfully, this story is not about a murder. Quant is hired by a mother looking for the son she hasn’t seen in 20 years since the lad was hauled off to reform school. The plot takes many twists and turns and I couldn’t even try to guess the ending. Like many mysteries there is a great deal of violence. This one also contains many tender scenes. I enjoyed the book.

As the title suggests Quant follows the trail of clues to South Africa and a couple safari resorts in Botswana. It is there he encounters ubuntu, an African term that directly translates as “humanity.” Quant, a friend who is into photography, and Joseph, their driver, venture into one of the townships for information. A case of camera lenses is stolen. Joseph disappears for a moment. When he comes back he announces they will go to dinner nearby. But what about the lenses? During the meal Joseph again disappears and moments later sets down the case of lenses. He explains that ubuntu brought the lenses back.
“For the same reason these people in the townships live so harmoniously together, for the same reason the children were not scared of us today, for the same reason everyone waved at you as we passed by,” Joseph told me. “They know that without the community, without the care and watchfulness and help of their neighbors, they are nothing. If a man takes a thing that is not his, such as the young foolish boy did today, he cannot get away with it. The community cannot let him get away with it. To let him keep it is to say it is okay for this boy to steal from others, and if you steal from others you can also steal from me and my brother and my cousin, because we are all the same.” He looked at me hard. “Even the two of you.”

“But we’re not part of this community,” I countered.

“But you are. You were there today. Do you realize what most visitors to our country never visit a township? They are afraid. They don’t understand. You will be surprised to learn that many city people, people who live right next to us as neighbors, many Afrikaners, have never come to our townships to see what it is to live here.” He downed some beer, then continued. “The people in the community know that if they see you with me, they know are paying me to bring you, and they know the money you pay me is returned to the township and the community.

“So today when that boy stole the case, many others saw this thing happen, there are always others who see, and there are always those who know who did this thing, so I simply told these men where we would be having dinner tonight and I knew if they could find this boy, and the thing he took, it would be returned to us, just as they would want us to do for them in return.” He smiled. “Ubuntu.”
The concept of ubuntu shows up several times during the story in a variety of ways.

Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about ranking, the widespread belief that some humans are supposed to be ranked higher than others. I had heard of an ancient society on the island of Crete without ranking, described in the book The Chalice and the Blade.

And ubuntu in South Africa is a modern example.

I’ve noticed that people who are obsessed with ranking are usually those at the top (or believe they are supposed be at the top). In contrast, many of those who are ranked lower, especially those at the bottom of the ranking systems, don’t worry about ranking. They highly value community instead. When they challenge those of higher rank it isn’t to invert the ranking so they come out on top. Instead, it is to banish ranking. Martin Luther King promoted the latter and was accused of the former.

The Wikipedia page on ubuntu includes a description of the concept. It is part of a ruling by South African Judge Colin Lamont in the hate speech trial of Julius Malema. Some of Lamont’s concepts:

* Ubuntu is to be contrasted with vengeance.

* It places a high premium on dignity, compassion, humaneness and respect for humanity of another.

* It demands a shift from confrontation to mediation and conciliation.

* It favors re-establishment of harmony, to restore the dignity of the plaintiff without ruining the defendant.

* It favors restorative rather than retributive justice.

* It favors reconciliation rather than estrangement, of changing conduct rather than merely punishing.

* It favors face-to-face encounters leading to resolution rather than conflict and victory.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained:
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.
More from Tutu, Ubuntu is not…
I think therefore I am. Rather, I am a human because I belong. I participate. I share.
To sum it up: I am because we are.

In sharp contrast to what is going on in Washington these days where leaders obsess about ranking, back in 2009 under Secretary of State Clinton, Elizabeth Frawley Gagley was sworn in as the Special Representative for Global Partnerships. She spoke of the need for the United States to conduct Ubuntu Diplomacy.

Let’s do away with ranking. Let’s practice ubuntu. Dignity, compassion, respect, reconciliation, restoration, resolution, belonging, an emphasis on we.

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