An annual “snow bird” sojourn to South Africa was convicting. The constant news highlighted the American political “silly season” along with the drumbeat reports of President Jacob Zuma’s illegal brutish behavior. An African storekeeper exclaimed, “Do Republicans not see the Trump antics are undermining the good feelings we have because of President Obama’s accomplishments? We are afraid for all of us.”
I am waiting for the music to return — the sonorous graces of laughter and kitchen clinking, of bird call on the hillside.
I am waiting for the music to return — the precarious arrangement of hope and memory that uplifts and guides.
I am waiting for the music to return — the band, the orchestra, the seisiún, the jam, the people who make and craft sound.
Instead, I am stranded in an eschatological posture like pause on my mp3 player. The Wifi Spirit does not respond and even if I could connect, the playlist I have randomized is sore lacking. I miss the people who make these sounds. I miss their voices.
What better way to honor Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday today than to reflect on his concept of Ubuntu? Ubuntu, a word from the Bantu languages of southern Africa — roughly translated “I am because we are” — sums up Mandela’s approach to leadership, incorporating a generous spirit and concern for the wellbeing of one’s community.
Will native son and national hero Nelson Mandela survive his latest bout with illness? That is the single question dominating headlines, speeches, twitter, and conversation throughout South Africa.
It’s an unusual situation in a country where death is an off-limits topic due to local culture. But as locals brace themselves, anxious, and hopeful, they remain stoic and protective, insisting on Mandela’s privacy as he battles a lung infection. And they say he has a right to be left alone.
“This is a man who gave so much of himself to this country,” said Roseline Wilson, 30, an insurance company representative in Johannesburg. “He must rest. He has suffered too much in his old age.”
Art and iconography — both ancient and modern — from Ethiopian Orthodoxy (also known as Tawahedo or "being made one" in the Ge'ez language that remains the official language of the Orthodox liturgy here) were ever-present — in shops, restaurants, and hotel lobbies as well as in the myriad churches and monasteries, and the sounds of ancient Christian prayers and the chants of monks filled the air from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the kebeles (or neighborhoods) on the outskirts of Bahir Dar, another major city about 60 km from the Sudanese border.
Back in 2005, Africa was a recurring theme of U2's worldwide Vertigo tour, where Bono’s campaigning for debt relief, trade justice and immediate intervention in the AIDS pandemic — each fueled by his following of Jesus — met in his music in indelibly powerful collision of faith, justice, and art.
When Bono and his bandmates played “Where The Streets Have No Name,” the most amazing mass of colors dropped from the rafters as millions of Willie Williams-designed, light bulbs descended from the rafters to form stage’s back drop and a modern-mosaic high-tech screen. Then came the flags of each African nation in the most moving light show I’ve ever seen.
During the razzle-dazzle on stage, Bono made his claim,
“From the swamp lands of Louisiana to the high hills of Kilimanjaro, from the bridge at Selma to the mouth of the Nile…AFRICA…AFRICA…AFRICA…the journey of equality moves on, moves on…AFRICA…from town centers to townships…sacred ground, proving ground…”
The link between the Martin Luther King Jr. (the Doctor of the Deep South of America’s inequality) to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (the Archbishop and President of Africa’s inequality) was particularly potent art.
What is Ubuntu? The principle of Ubuntu was birthed in Africa and there is no direct translation of the word into English. Archbishop Desmond Tutu summarizes it well:
“You know when it is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, it refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available for others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life, for a person is only a person through other persons.”
The observations of my life thus far have led me to conclude that it is popular to argue for the advancement of the individual.
I've been navel gazing again and wondering how we come to know ourselves. I wonder what that right balance is between our inner-barometer of self-knowing and that external one that people reflect back to us. "Ubuntu," (I am because of who we are) or all the various "I am..." statements: "I think therefore I am" (Descartes) or "I am what I am and that's all that I am" (Popeye)...What statements might we add to this list? Bishop Desmond Tutu expands the notion of Ubuntu thusly:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
I'm trying to wrap my mind about how we construct the self. Judith Butler, Catherine Bell (ritualization) and others inhabit my mind lately. Ritual, tradition, story, identity... the list goes on and on ...