Chapter 9

From Ancestors and Elders to Youth: Building Bridges of Transmission

By Zara Houshmand

At many points during the conference, speakers as well as members of the audience questioned how the ideal of ubuntu could best be transmitted to Africa’s youth, especially in the face of competing influences from Western culture.

Sheela Raja Ram, the Vice Chancellor of Botho University, described how the faculty’s vision of instilling ubuntu, or botho, in their graduates had evolved through the trial-and-error of practical experience to recognize the importance of what happens in students’ lives outside the classroom, and the need to create space for daily reflection amid the pressure of accumulating knowledge.

Lily Mafela spoke from her experience as a professor at the University of Botswana, of the huge challenge of teaching a concept that is fading in the face of competing cultural influences from the West and commercially driven media. She saw the problem, in part, arising from the relative prestige and power of the written word compared to how the teaching of ubuntu occurs traditionally through the spoken word in an extended family environment. Thus the development of appropriate reading materials for schools is essential.

Michael Eze expressed the challenge for youth as redefining what it means to be an African in the 21st century. While colonialism, westernization, and globalized media have led to defining a person in materialistic terms by their possessions, indigenous societies measure individuals by their altruism and compassion, and by their capacity and willingness to work and care for others. Africa’s youth will need to find a way to hold these values in balance, because the forces of westernization and materialism are not going away. He saw the solution in Archbishop Tutu’s response to Descartes: “I participate, therefore I am.”

In the Dialogue’s final session, we heard from young African leaders in their own voices. Donald Molosi is an award-winning actor and playwright whose work embodies ubuntu at the intersection of performing arts, history, and education.

He creates theatrical works focusing on the history and traditional culture of Botswana, and Africa more generally, that is neglected in the colonial education system. “I discovered,” he said, “that theater and performance can function as a carrier of memory and archive, and also to safeguard the past for coming generations.” In practice, this has meant using theater to tell the stories of Africans “where their humanity is fully present” and putting “the past in dialogue with the present, in an African context to heal the trauma of colonialism.”

“Often in Botswana’s discourse of botho, young people are at best, excluded, and at worst, discussed as a problem. But if they are the future and botho can only survive through them, why not actively engage them in dialogue? That gesture after all, is botho itself.” Donald Molosi

In a traditional setting, Molosi explained, education is understood as a manifestation of intergenerational ubuntu through the guidance that elders provide to youth informally in the context of life events in the extended family. Molosi recognized the professional mentoring that he received early in his career as a contemporary manifestation of this traditional intergenerational ubuntu. It also surfaces in the context of modern education. In 1976, Botswana, then one of the poorest nations in Africa, started a campaign to raise funds for the construction of the University of Botswana. They wanted, as Molosi expressed it, “to do botho (ubuntu) to generations that they would never see.”

Following the suggestion of his elders, Molosi has also convened what he calls a “digital kgota,” recreating Botswana’s kgota system of the democratic village court online. Using social media, young people are addressing present challenges to African youth in the democratic fashion of their ancestors.

As a young person working to empower adults in rural communities of Ghana by teaching adult literacy, Leonard Annan added nuance to the idea of education as intergenerational ubuntu. He spoke of being moved by a young girl’s dreams of becoming a doctor and the realization that her biggest obstacle was her own parents’ lack of education. He emphasized the need to define one’s self—the “I” of “I am because you are”—as a way of creating one’s own world and thus a path to creating the world of equality and access to education that will enable the next generation to realize its dreams.

Justine Hamupolo is a youth advocate from Namibia who is working to sensitize grass roots communities around the issues of LGBTI people, and within the LGBTI community to promote their understanding of human rights. She described the inclusivity that she lobbies for as a form of ubuntu—a way of seeing individuals’ humanity through the many layers of identity. In the practical work of designing and implementing programs, ubuntu expresses itself as ownership and inclusivity.

Landa Mabenge has founded a consulting company in South Africa that links transgender youth to care, as well as educating and raising awareness around transgender realities. He shared his own story as a transgender person, his early rebellion and the conversations with his grandparents and family that led to self-acceptance; and his desire to bring that access, privilege, and justice to those who have been excluded from it. He spoke of how the Dalai Lama’s words—“Right now, at this moment, I have a mind, which is all the equipment I need to be happy”—had led him to the understanding of ubuntu as a liberating contemplative practice of communing with ancestors and elders, and of aligning with what connects us as human beings.

Agostine Ndung’u studied political science in the US with the dream of becoming a politician, but found his way to a different type of leadership when he returned to Kenya, organizing agribusiness cooperatives that engage rural youth in working together across ethnic divisions. Providing youth with both employment and a personal stake in the peace of their communities helps to prevent their participation in violence. It is a return to ideals of community that were being lost in the process of colonialized education that focused on individual advancement.

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