By Zara Houshmand
Though Michael Onyebuchi Eze has established himself firmly as a philosopher in the academic mold, with positions at the University of Amsterdam, Cambridge, Stanford, and Colorado Christian University, he opened his talk by positioning himself within African tradition. He was speaking, he said, through the voice of his ancestors, and he invoked them in a powerful Prayer of Lamentation.
The concept of ubuntu is enjoying a certain vogue, but its commercial exploitation—from Ubuntu Cola to the Ubuntu operating system—frames it as an essential and unchanging commodity, shared among those who are like ourselves. Eze spoke instead of the lived experience of ubuntu as an ethical tradition grounded in a culture that is inherited from the ancestors but still dynamic and evolving into new forms. It looks to lessons from the past to guide us in the present and to make sense of the future.
Ubuntu is a philosophy of dialogue, Eze explained, and as such it can embrace differences. The expression “A person is a person through other people,” means that we are recreated anew in every encounter with another person, bringing to each other the unique gifts of our humanity. Those gifts include our differences, which are worth celebrating and preserving. You enrich my life with your unique difference.
In the process of any human negotiation that is a genuine dialogue, ego breaks down. Eze described the time he had spent as a missionary living for six months in a leper colony. He was initially resistant, in fear of the disease and its social stigma, but then gradually put aside the elaborate precautions he had taken in the first days as he came to see these people not as lepers but as individuals—as human beings who love, who are jealous, who fight, who gossip, just like anyone else.
This is the lesson of ubuntu, Eze explained: We find our shared humanity in the encounter with others. The masks of fear, suspicion, and strangeness are removed and the gifts become visible. Ubuntu does not ask that we erase differences and become the same. It asks that we interpret others positively, recognizing that whatever our differences, our humanity is equal. It is an invitation to dialogue, to understanding, even without agreement, and with understanding comes compassion, tolerance, nobility, sharing. Sharing is divinity, just as food is divinity in African culture. Ubuntu tells us: Go and share food with the person you don’t like. Something will shift. In dialogue you need not come to agreement, but you will come to understanding.
Although scholars have often described ubuntu as a communal value—expressed as “I am because we are”—it does not suppress individuality. Neither community nor individualism are given priority in African philosophy; they exist in harmony. To emphasize the communal “we” reinforces the tribalism and ethnocentric supremacy that leads to conflicts such as what occurred in Burundi and Rwanda. Eze suggested that a more appropriate expression of ubuntu is “I am because you are,” emphasizing its relational rather than communal nature, or the literal translation of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu / motho ke motho ka batho:
“A person is a person through other people.” Ubuntu embraces the nobility of human identity more broadly than tribal or communal identity, including even enemies and those we don’t agree with.