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UBUNTU: I Am Because You Are

Friday, May 29, 2015 @ 11:13 PM

I just returned from a 10-day trip to South Africa.  The trigger for my travel was the World Cornerstone Conference of the International Women’s Forum, hosted by the leading women of the new nation (only 21 years old!) of the Republic of South Africa. 

Entitled “Legacy & Inheritance: Journey to the Future,” the Johannesburg conference attracted over 600 women leaders from 30 countries and five continents.  The 3-day agenda was packed with some of the most respected and visionary thinkers, activists, elected leaders and business people at work today in southern Africa. 

I was struck by their willingness to openly engage in courageous conversations about the lessons learned from South Africa’s disturbing, apartheid past, as well as the challenges they are tackling today as they work to build a “rainbow nation” that lives up to the non-racist, non-sexist, “Ubuntu” promises of South Africa’s (1997) Constitution.

What is Ubuntu?  It is a deeply-held idea from the Southern African region of the world that literally means “human-ness.” Our conference hosts defined it as: “I am because you are.” It was expressed in another way on a beautifully-painted bench on Signal Hill overlooking the spectacular Cape Town harbor, which read:  “Your Respect is My Strength.”

South Africa is one of the shining lights of the African continent, although as a democracy it is a very young nation, born April 27, 1994.

I could write pages about what I learned during my first visit to this spectacular country of 47 million people speaking 11 official languages and striving to collectively heal from the damage done to the nation’s psyche and soul as they look to the future. But I’ll try to be concise. So, here are a few highlights, whose themes are universally relevant to individuals and nations aspiring to the values of Ubuntu.  

Stunning Beauty, Bitter Lessons -- My travels took me from the crashing waves of the Cape of Good Hope and lush fields and majestic mountains of Wine Country to close encounters with born free lions, elephants, leopards and rhinos in Kruger National Park. Blessed with gold, diamonds and spectacular beauty, South Africa is one of the continent’s jewels.

But its bitter history cannot be ignored. I walked the streets of SOWETO (Southwest Townships of Johannesburg), home to over 4 million people, some living in tin shacks with no water or electricity, as well as the homes of two Nobel Peace Prize Winners – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  And I soaked in the sobering lessons of humanity at its worst on display at the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum, named for the 13-year old boy who was shot by police during the student uprisings of June 1976. The photo of his death alerted the world to the tragedy of apartheid. All over the world, including in my own country, racism still raises its ugly head.

The Path to Equal Justice. For me, the most powerful voice of the conference was that of the Honorable Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi and the 2nd female head of state in an African nation. She unapologetically focuses her efforts on lifting women and children, who are the majority of the world’s poor. “Education breaks the yolk that oppresses most women and girls,” she said. “We must begin with education and then invest in women who are natural producers . . . of life . . . of food from the ground and as entrepreneurs.”

Dr. Banda challenged the global IWF leaders to “live extraordinary lives” and use our talents to change the world, telling us, “You are only a leader when you reach out and lift others. Are you sleeping on the job? Or are you awake to the cries of the human family?”

Lessons From Animals – And how can I not mention the impact of spending three days in the company of some of the world’s most spectacular wild and free animals at a tented camp in Kruger.  I couldn’t help but notice the dramatic differences in male and female behavior.    

Over and over, I observed the collective strength of matriarchal societies where females bond together to feed their young and survive. Elephants, zebras, lions, hyenas, antelope and many others kick males out of the herd when they reach puberty and start “causing trouble. The females decide what is best for the group and the survival of the next generation. Their strength is collective.  Male strength was individual and concerned with their own physical needs – food and sex.  It is the female lions who do the hunting, but the males eat their fill before the lionesses get a bite.  Adult males live solitary lives, fighting other males for access to females during mating season.

Observing the ways that matriarchal instincts and collective female strength protect life and nurture healthy group behavior, I couldn’t help but wonder why and when we lost our collective strength. In most societies, adult females are paired off with individual males, which distances women and children from the protection of other females. And because most women are physically weaker than men, we are vulnerable to dangerous males. Rampant domestic violence, campus rape and sexual trafficking of young girls are all glaring examples of how far females have strayed from the wisdom of nature. I've felt that collective power each time I've been privileged to spend time with women who travel from all corners of the globe to learn and be energized by one another at the outstanding IWF global conferences.

Two fabulous examples are the leaders in this picture, Ntsiki Memela-Motumi, a Major General in the South African army and Marsha Sampson-Johnson, a speaker, change agent and retired Bell South senior executive.   

 Making It In A Man’s World Is Just the Beginning. I’ll leave you with the words of an African leader who told her gathered highly-accomplished sisters, “Too many of us are congratulating ourselves and one another for ‘making it in a man’s world.’ But that’s just the beginning. The real accomplishment will be making this a ‘human world” where all god’s creatures can thrive.”

Ubuntu!

 

 

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