Europe Could Use A Little ‘Ubuntu’

August 26, 2023

Over the summer, Europe saw tourists from around the world visit its shores for #EuropeanSummer23. While exploring Western European cities, I met people from around the world and got to experience the history and culture of each destination. As a South African – American woman, I see the world through more than one lens.

In the United States, it was always understood that Black people have to stick together, to cultivate community, in order to achieve equality or basic human rights.  From times of enslavement to living under white supremacist political leadership and legislation, Black folks in the United States have always known that we could only ever rely on our own communities. More than that, the Africans enslaved and brought to the Americas carried over many of the ideas and values present in pre-colonial Africa.

Demystifying Europe

Living in South Africa, where Black people are the super majority, the need for community is enshrined in our cultures. A common reference to this is the concept of “Ubuntu“, loosely translated as “I am because you are” or “humanity towards others”. It’s easy to believe that Western nations are exempt from poverty or squalor, especially when your only point of reference is film, television, or an influencer’s most recent TikTok/Reel. However, poverty is not exclusive to the global South.

Eiffel Tower at night

While traveling through Western Europe, I often wondered why the misery of the poor seemed so much more jarring. Eventually, I recognized the feeling was the same as when I saw Cape Townian poverty for the first time. The wealth and the poverty being so closely juxtaposed together is jarring, to say the least.  Funny enough, many South Africans refer to Cape Town as the “Europe” of South Africa for its beauty and its treatment of BIPOC people.

Defining ubuntu isn’t simple

Without glamorizing or diminishing the stress and suffering endured by the poor in South Africa, I’d have to say that European poverty is seemingly worse because the culture of Europe is not rooted in a concept of communal growth or ubuntu. So much of the Western world, namely Western Europe from what I saw, had expressions of itself limited to individualism. In isiZulu, we say “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu“, which sets the tone for how people are expected to engage each other. As isiZulu is difficult to accurately translate, I turn to Brenda Fassie’s similarly named song to express the meaning of this statement.

In Europe, there can be no such tone when the individual is the most considered entity. Let this be clear, however, I am not aligning myself with the conservative political sentiment masquerading as “family values” politics. While there are many reasons why individualism is more pronounced in Western Europe, I can’t help but wonder what Europeans would be like with a little more ubuntu in their lives.