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Ubumuntu: What Genocide Tries to Kill and the Righteous Protect

by Craig Palmer

Ubumuntu Arts Festival

Ubumuntu Arts Festival

Ubumuntu . . . [means] kindness, humanity, or greatness of heart. In the context of the genocide it has been used to describe the rescuers that saved others at great personal expense.1

During the Holocaust, the Righteous Among the Nations risked their lives to save the lives of others. Similar acts of rescue during the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi are sometimes described in Kinyarwandan, the language of Rwanda, as “ubumuntu.”

The Meaning and Universality of Ubumuntu

Ubumuntu is the Kinyarwandan word for what is called “ubuntu,” or similar names, in other Bantu languages found in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Many people in other parts of the world first became aware of this concept when “ubuntu” became a term for African unity and social solidarity in the struggle against apartheid. Today, ubuntu is known by many people as a computer software program, but at its core, ubuntu means “humanity towards others,”2 and has been called “the essence of being human.”3

“Kindness” and “generosity” are the English words most often found in attempts to describe the concept referred to by words like ubumuntu and ubuntu. For example, many people translate the concept as “human kindness,”4 and Desmond Tutu said, when you have the quality of ubuntu, “you are known for your generosity.”3

One should not take ubumuntu for granted. Ubumuntu is something that must be taught, instilled, and encouraged by others. Ubumuntu can also be lost if one becomes selfish and self-centered. This is why, “In Rwanda and Burundi societies, it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to gira ubuntu meaning to 'have consideration and be humane towards others.'“2

Nurturing and preserving ubumuntu allows for its transmission from one generation to the next. Accordingly, “Ubuntu . . . embodies deep respect for ancestors, and . . . those who will live on earth in the future.”2 Ubumuntu also “implies an appreciation of traditional beliefs, and a constant awareness that an individual's actions today are a reflection on the past, and will have far-reaching consequences for the future.”2

Although ubumuntu has nuances and connotations unique to specific languages and parts of the world, teaching the next generation to be humane has been a priority in all known cultures. Anthropologists have labeled this teaching of kindness the axiom of kinship amity. The similarity of this concept to ubumuntu is apparent in the observation that everywhere in the world, “kinship predicates the axiom of amity, the prescriptive altruism exhibited in the ethic of generosity.”5 Further, like ubumuntu, the axiom of amity can be transmitted via teaching to an almost infinite number of future generations.6

Genocide Kills Ubumuntu

In the 1940s, Raphael Lemkin recognized the need for a new word to draw world attention to a particularly heinous form of mass murder. His choice of the word “genocide” was very appropriate, perhaps even more so than is commonly realized.

The root word “cide” refers to killing. Thus, the root word “gen” refers to what genocide kills. Many people know that “gen” refers to both a category of people and to give birth or beget. When these two meanings are combined, “genocide” refers to killing people asserted to be of the same kind by virtue of being born from common ancestors. However, “gen” also has an additional, lesser-known meaning.

Like ubumuntu, “gen” refers to treating others with generosity and kindness. For example, “gen” is a root word in such terms as “generosity” in English and “gentilezza” in Italian. This usage results from “gen” being the root of the noun “kind,” a category of something, and the adjective “kind,” being compassionate and generous. Thus, “gen” refers to kindness itself, as well as a category of people one treats with kindness because they are kin.

This meaning of the root word “gen” implies that genocide kills the kindness that transforms unconnected individual humans into humanity, as well as killing a particular category of people. When genocide occurs, ubumuntu not only perishes within each of the individuals murdered; ubumuntu also dies in the individuals committing the genocide. Ubumuntu is also greatly diminished every time someone encourages, tolerates, ignores, or denies genocide. Genocide is the antithesis of ubumuntu. Ubumuntu begets humanity; genocide extinguishes humanity.

Whoever Saves One Life Saves Ubumuntu

Because ubumuntu means “humanity” as well as “human generosity,”7 it reminds us that the victims of genocide include humanity itself. However, the use of the word ubumuntu to refer to the acts of rescuers is brilliant. People everywhere in the world have kept kindness, generosity, and humanity (i.e., ubumuntu) alive through the telling and retelling of stories of selfless acts.8 People who hear these stories are inspired to perform similar acts of kindness and generosity. These acts can then give rise to similar actions by others. Thus, stirring stories of kindness can start chain reactions of ubumuntu, as described in a recent headline, “Simple act of Ubuntu triggers tsunami of generosity.”9

Although the concept of ubumuntu painfully highlights how much genocide destroys, it also reminds us that passing on the stories of the Righteous can transmit the essence of being human to posterity. This transmission, with its far-reaching consequences for the future, is one of the ways the Righteous are the “the Righteous of Humanity.”10

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Notes

1 https://sites.tufts.edu/museumstudents/2019/01/13/the-kigali-genocide-memorial-remembrance-and-learning/

2https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ubuntu_(philosophy)

3https://www.capetownmagazine.com/whats-the-deal-with/ubuntu/125_22_17348

4 http://happinessaroundtheglobe.com/happiness-in-south-africa-defined-by-ubuntu/

5Fortes, M. 1969. Kinship and Social Order. Aldine, Chicago. p. 262.

6 Keesing, R. 1975. Kin Groups and Social Structure. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Pp.32-33.

7https://www.sundaynews.co.zw/ubuntuism-and-president-eds-new-trajectory/

8Palmer, C. T. Begley, R. O., Coe, K. & L. B. Steadman. 2013. “Moral Elevation and Traditions: Ancestral Encouragement of Altruism through Ritual and Myth.” Journal of Ritual Studies 27(2): 83-96.

9https://www.biznews.com/good-hope-project/2019/06/05/ubuntu-good-society

10https://en.gariwo.net/the-righteous-of-humanity-memory-of-good-and-genocide-prevention-10331.html

Craig Palmer, anthropologist

Analysis by Craig Palmer, anthropologist

20 April 2020

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