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CHEIKH Anta Diop rightly raised the still relevant, even urgent, question of our finding within ourselves the will and way to reach back and down into the depth of our cul- ture and retrieve the philosophical foundations to aid us in addressing the critical challenges of our people and the pressing problems of our age. At the heart of this aspiration, he suggest- ed, would be self-conscious efforts of African people to contribute to the conception and put- ting into place a new way of being human in the world. This new way would, of necessity, include an ethical engagement with the natural world, understanding our unavoidable embed- dedness in it and our irrevocable responsibility towards it.

Kawaida philosophy, which is an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world, has advocated this also and we have worked for such a critical sankofa cultural recovery and reconstruction in the interest of liberation and life since the Sixties. Our response to Di- op is expressed in our works, Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics and Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings, focusing especially on Maat and on the Ifa ethical concept of eniyan, humans as divinely chosen to bring good in the world, which we posed as world-encompassing ethi- cal and philosophical options for active en- gagement at this critical juncture in history. Also, we have drawn from both ancient and modern, continental and diasporan culture to create Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba, framing a conversation and context for millions of Af- ricans throughout the world African communi- ty to reflect regularly on the meaning and awesome responsibility of being African in the world.

Since the 1990’s numerous and varied conversations have evolved around the con- cept of ubuntu as another philosophical principle of African culture which, if rightly de- fined, developed and put into practice, could be useful in the urgent and ongoing efforts to improve our lives and undergird a real African Renaissance. And it could also offer the world a meaningful option and alternative to the de- grading, exploitative and oppressive views and practices that too often define and defile hu- mans’ relations with each other and with the natural world. I first encountered the concept of ubuntu in the ‘60s thru my teacher at UCLA, Dr. A. C. Jordan, a South African, who had introduced me to it as he taught me African literature and culture, and helped me with my study of Zulu.

Ubuntu is a Zulu social and ethical concept which literally means human-ness, those composite qualities which constitute the core of what it means to be human. Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it as “the essence of being human.” Moreover, it is a quality of per- sonhood which is rooted in one of the most important African ethical concepts, i.e., reciprocal relationships as the ground of being and becoming human. This concept is expressed in Zulu as umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, i.e., “a person is a person through other persons (or people)”.

This idea of coming into being and achiev- ing the fullness of our human-ness in and thru relationships is perhaps best known from John Mbiti’s maxim, “I am because we are and, be- cause we are therefore I am.” Adding agency to this fundamental principle, Kawaida philos- ophy posits it as “I am related and I relate therefore I am.” Or in the collective, we are related and relate; therefore, we are. In other words, we come into being and come into the fullness of ourselves in and thru reciprocal relationships. And these rightful relationships are rooted in our human identities as both social and natural beings, and must be aligned in such a way that we truly feel at home in and with the world.

Ubuntu is also an ethical and spiritual foundation for building and living a truly hu- man life, and a social and political ideal to- wards which we constantly strive. Its core val- ues seek not only to cultivate a truly human person, but also a truly human society and world. Some of these core values are: mutual respect, mutual caring, mutual sharing, har- monious living together and a shared com- mitment to the ongoing work of peace thru justice. Again, at the heart of the concept and practice of ubuntu is the principle of reciproci- ty in our relationships and our actions. Indeed, it is this mutual responsiveness that informs and undergirds the process and practice of our coming into the fullness of ourselves as hu- man beings.

Mutual respect is an ancient African ethi- cal value as expressed in the Maatian teach- ings of ancient Egypt which defines humans as possessors of dignity and divinity, sacred and deserving of the highest respect. This re- spect is also a rightful recognition and appre- ciation of our similarity and diversity, and our embeddedness in and responsibility to com- munity and the natural world. Mutual caring means loving-kindness, compassion, rightful attentiveness and responsiveness to each other and our constant concern for the well-being and flourishing of each other. And mutual sharing cultivates in us a profound commit- ment to share the good and goods in and of the world. Key here is an ethics of sharing which includes shared status, shared knowledge, shared space (social and natural), shared wealth, shared power, shared interests and shared responsibility for building the good world we all want and deserve. And this is to be embraced in both principle and practice as a superior and sustaining way to live in the world.

Finally, ubuntu requires and reaffirms the virtue and value of the ongoing and shared work of peace so that we may live together in harmony and with justice. Here, I want to draw on the concept of peace making in Swa- hili, kupatana, which literally means a mutual getting and mutual achieving and suggests a process in which there is a mutual securing and attaining of things valued and at issue. Inherent in this concept is the requirement of justice or securing what is rightfully due each and all of us or our giving each other what is right and due, e.g., in Zulu, ukunikana oku- Ilungile futhi okufanele.

Indeed, the hub and hinge on which the value and usefulness of ubuntu turns is our joint will and capacity to move from principle to practice. Thus, ubuntu must not be used as a moral sedative for the righteous anger and resistance of the people or their rejection of reconciliation without real justice. Rather, ubuntu must be practiced and made manifest in the continuously improved lives of the people, respectful engagement with the environment, and shared good in and for the world. Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, defining freedom in this ubuntu context of shared good, says: “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but (also) to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” And so it is with social and environ- mental justice, and every other good in the world.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies, California State University-Long Beach; Executive Director, African American Cultural Center (Us); Creator of Kwanzaa; and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and Introduction to Black Studies, 4th Edition,;

Dr. Maulana Karenga

Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies, California State University-Long Beach; Executive Director, African American Cultural Center (Us); Creator of Kwanzaa; and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, The Message and Meaning of Kwanzaa: Bringing Good Into the World and Essays on Struggle: Position and Analysis,;;