Desmond Tutu and Ubuntu
I Am Because We Are
by Paul Hess
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To convey that relationships and community are fundamental parts of what it means to be a human being.
Preparation and materials
- Note that this assembly can be linked to the feast day of Francis of Assisi (4 October). If you wish to do this, add the following to the ‘Assembly’ text below, just before Step 7.
The 4 October is the feast day of Francis of Assisi. Francis was someone who understood, at a very deep level, that Christianity is not just about having a spiritual relationship with God but also about how we relate to our fellow human beings and, indeed, all of creation. Desmond Tutu is known to be a great admirer of Francis and we can certainly see that Francis showed Ubuntu in his life!
- Have available the video of Desmond Tutu explaining the concept of Ubuntu and the means to show it during the assembly (available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wZtfqZ271w). It is 3.26 minutes long.
- Also have available the song ‘Everybody needs somebody to love’ by Solomon Burke or the version from the film The Blues Brothers and the means to play it at the beginning and end of the assembly (check copyright).
- Play the song ‘Everybody needs somebody to love’ by Solomon Burke or the version from the film The Blues Brothers as the students come in to assembly.
What is the unique quality or characteristic that makes a human being? How would you answer the question, ‘What defines a person as a person?
- Many answers have been given to this question – some focusing on our physical bodies, our rational powers, our creativity or our emotions and feelings.
- One example of an answer to the question was that given by the famous French philosopher René Descartes, who said, ‘I think, therefore I am’. In other words, being a human being has got a lot to do with the ability to reason, with the powers of the mind.
In this, Descartes demonstrates a trend seen in a lot of Western thinking about human beings – that it tends to focus on human beings as individuals and the individual qualities each person possesses.
- Yet, the fact is that if I was just alone with my thoughts for all of the time, I would not be complete as a human being. I would obviously be lonely and I would feel that there was something missing from my life.
- In the words of the song we were listening to a moment ago, ‘everybody needs somebody’. This goes deeper than just romantic love. There are many people in our lives – friends, family, classmates, teammates, work colleagues, acquaintances – who make us the people we are, who shape our lives, who give our lives purpose and meaning.
- Perhaps we can learn something from Africa. A famous bishop in the Church in South Africa called Desmond Tutu (who celebrates his birthday on 7 October) spent many years fighting the system of apartheid (racial segregation) in South Africa.
He taught people in the West about the African word Ubuntu. It is a rather difficult word to translate, but it means something like ‘a person is person because of other persons’.
Desmond Tutu says that the thing which defines us as human beings is relationship. It is within relationships and within communities that we become the people we are meant to be. He says, ‘a solitary human being is a contradiction in terms.’ As human beings, we are made by God to be in relationship with one another.
Listen to him explaining the concept of Ubuntu here.
Play the video of Desmond Tutu explaining the concept of Ubuntu.
As Desmond Tutu says, the African understanding of relationship and community is very similar to that found in the Bible. In Genesis (2.18), God creates Adam and then says, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ The creation of Eve is a thus a powerful expression of the fact that human beings were made for togetherness, for relationship.
- To practise Ubuntu, we need to recognize that we are not solitary human beings, here to pursue our own individual ambitions. We need to know that our humanity is tied up with the humanity of others and we must place the good of the community above our own selfish interests.
What a wonderful place this school and this community would be if we were characterized by the word Ubuntu!
Time for reflection
We are now going to have two short readings – one from the Bible and one from the writings of Desmond Tutu. Both express key elements of Ubuntu – the equality and unity of all human beings and that all of us are part of one family.
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3.26–28, NRSV).
We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God's family (Desmond Tutu).
Let’s keep a moment of silence as we think about what we’ve heard.
'Everybody needs somebody to love’ by Solomon Burke or the version from the film The Blues Brothers