What is Ubuntu? The time has come for humanity to forget and cast behind it false concepts of how we came to be here on this planet. In order to do so we must reexamine where we are headed as a species. Ubuntu is a Swahili word. Others have made much of Ubuntu’s meaning, a great deal of which lacks a factual basis and is little more than opinion. This post is about Ubuntu and the African philosophical concepts that support it. Below is a perspective of Ubuntu from one who lived it, Dr. Alexis Kagame of Rwanda.
In his exposition of the philosophy of the Bantu of Ruanda, Kagame starts from his mother tongue, Kinyaruanda, Like all Bantu languages, it is a language of classification, that is, the substantives are not divided as they are in German into grammatical genders, but are grouped into kinds or classes. There are classes for human beings, for things animated by magic (life force), including trees, for tools, fluids, animals, places, abstractions an so on. The class of a word can be recognized by a sound or group of sounds which precedes the stem and which European grammarians call a ‘prefix’, but which Kagame with good reason calls a ‘determinative’. For when a prefix like ‘un’ in ‘unpleasant’ or ‘im’ in ‘impossible’ is separated from the stem, a meaningful word, ‘pleasant’ or ‘possible’, remains. In the Bantu languages on the other hand, the stem without the determinative does not give a word; the stem cannot stand alone, but loses all concreteness and in fact does not occur in speech.
In order to keep the concepts we are borrowing from Kagame’s mother tongue as simple and easy to remember as possible, we shall suppress the tones as well as their true prefixes which, in this language, precede the determinatives. So we get in simplified form four basic concepts which are to be explained in what follows:
- I Muntu = ‘human being’ (plural: Bantu);
- II Kintu = ‘thing (plural: Bintu);
- III Hantu = ‘place and time’;
- IV Kuntu = ‘modality’.
Muntu, Kintu, Hantu and Kuntu are the four categories of African philosophy. All being, all essence, in whatever form we conceive it, can be subsumed under one of these categories. We can conceive nothing outside them.
Since there are ten classes in Kagame’s mother tongue, the determinatives of the words do not agree with the determinatives of the four categories. But we can subsume all the words. Thus ‘muhanga’ = ‘scholar’ (first class) belongs to the category Muntu (‘human being’); ‘ruhanga’ = ‘forehead’ (third class) to the category Kintu (‘thing’); ‘mahanga’ = ‘foreign lands’ (fifth class) to the category Hantu (‘place’) and ‘buhanga’ = ‘(specialized-) knowledge’ (eighth class) to the category Kuntu (‘modality’).
Everything there is must belong to one of these four categories and we must conceive of them not as substance but as force. Man is a force, all things are forces, place and time are forces and the ‘modalities’ of forces. Man and woman (category Muntu), dog and stone (category Kintu), east and yesterday (category Hantu), beauty and laughter (category Kuntu) are forces and are all related to one another. We express the relationship of these forces in their very names, for if we remove the determinative, the stem NTU is the same for all the categories.
NTU is the universal force which, however, never occurs apart from its manifestations: Muntu, Kintu, Hantu and Kuntu. NTU is Being itself, the cosmic universal force, which only modern rationalizing thought can abstract from its manifestations. NTU is that force in which Being and Beings coalesce. NTU is — so we may say through suggestion that something which Breton probably had in mind when he wrote: ‘Everything leads us to believe that there exists a central point of thought at which living and dead, real and imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, high and low, are no longer conceived of as contradictory.’ Ntu is that ‘point from which creation flows’ that Klee was seeking: ‘I am seeking a far off point from which creation flows, where I suspect there is a formula for man, beast, plant, earth, fire, water, air and all circling forces at once.’
But in NTU Breton’s contradictions have never existed, nor is it something ‘far away’. If we said that NTU was a force manifesting itself in man, beast, thing, place, time, beauty, ugliness, laughter, tears, and so on, this statement would be false, for it would imply that NTU was something independent beyond all these things. NTU is what Muntu, Kintu, Hantu, and Kuntu all equally are. Force and matter are not being united in this conception. They have never been apart.
NTU expresses, not the effect of these forces, but their being. But the forces act continually and are constantly effective. Only if one could call a halt to the whole universe, if life suddenly stood still, would NTU reveal itself to us. The driving power, however, that gives life and efficacy to all things is Nommo, the ‘word’, of which for the moment we can only say that it is word and water and seed and blood in one.