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Obama and Ubuntu by Barbara Nussbaum

Wordsetc Four

To commemorate Barack Obama’s inauguration today, Wordsetc brings you this piece from our latest edition by Barbara Nussbaum.


A Psalm for Obama

Let us Savour today
The seed of all who dream
Some seed bore fruit
In the hands of one man
A fruit, So magnificent
That the world woke up
And celebrated
May we be in awe
Of this new ocean of change
So pure in being
So wide in breadth
So divine intent
That millions of us
Witness the seas of our being
Flowing in waves
Of togetherness
Bringing tears of relief in some
Songs of joy in others
And hope for humanity’s oneness
In love

- Dedicated to Obama and to all who dream, November 6, 2008, Johannesburg

I wrote this psalm the day on November 6, a day after Barack Obama was elected US President. The previous day, Obama had delivered an unforgettable acceptance speech. I had been stunned and moved by a sacred moment in time. It was a day where history felt blessed. Like billions of people around the world, I shared a contagious hope for a different future.

And then, part of me felt a deep and sober sadness. What has taken us so long as a world to wake up? I was born to Jewish parents in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. My father and grandparents had fled the Holocaust in Germany. We had lost many relatives to the Holocaust, so witnessing any ignorance in the world about race, religion, ethnicity and colour has continued to be a concern. Watching the tears rolling down Jesse Jackson’s face and Oprah’s face, I cried too. Mine were tears of catharsis. I was crying for a world, which had taken too long, to care. Paradoxically, in a moment that defined the possibility for collective transformation, I finally felt free to acknowledge a profound sadness and disappointment. How long we have taken as a world to make a collective choice for change.

Finally in Obama, we have a leader with a magnificent ability to communicate across class, across race, across nations. He touches so many of us who yearn for the power of our connection as human beings.

By the next day, I had slept peacefully and began to write the psalm, starting to feel the joy and the abundant blessings of Obama’s election. In the writing, I felt the gratitude for all the dreamers and visionaries I have met in my life. I realised that many of us hope and dream and I wanted to acknowledge all who dream and all who are bold enough to dare to hope audaciously.

That day, I saw the possibility of hope in the millions of faces on the television screen. For in Obama, the world has a leader whose awareness of our interconnectedness combines with a powerful stand for hope and for change. Obama’s ability to articulate the ways in which we are intertwined as human beings speaks to a zeitgeist, a moment in time, when the world is hungry for his message. Our choices and decisions, small and large, individually and collectively, affect each other continuously and have repercussions globally as we discover how interlinked we are in our communities, in our businesses, in our countries and in our world. Obama speaks to this so brilliantly and inspires us. This moment felt sacred for the world and sacred in my own life’s journey. When I hear Obama speak, I recognise an ubuntu exemplar. These are people I watch for, people who give my own life meaning and inspiration.

Of the various definitions of ubuntu, I like the one given by a Congolese student Raiz Boneza, who is currently engaged in peace studies in Norway. He writes, “I am because you are, I became because you became; we are human beings through the eyes of other human beings; my dignity is your dignity. That is what ubuntu teaches us.”

To give some context and background, I have had the privilege of living between the US and South Africa during the past sixteen years. Frightened after being mugged in Joburg in 2000, I bolted to the US, just in time to witness the horror of George W Bush stealing that election. Seeing images of collective disappointment on the television hurt me. I witnessed the gaping chasm in a nation divided, puzzled and angry. I was shocked and in the noise of my own outrage, noticed the beginning of a profound inner dialogue. It went something like this.

How could American politics be different if ubuntu was part of the equation? How could the world be, if ubuntu was widely practised? What would American capitalism look like if sprinkled with African ubuntu? All these questions were alive for me. In the sweet intensity of those moment, life felt large and the questions irresistible! These have stayed with me, like a slow insistent drum beat that needed to be heard.

My own pathway to ubuntu emerged in unexpected ways. Through research for a thesis, on African dance, I began to understand something about the power of the social processes and the genius of the emotional intelligence that lives in African culture. The research proved to be an unusual passport into an unexpected forum in 1995 – Wits Business School’s South African Management Project. The intention of the project was to acknowledge how Eurocentric our corporate culture was in South Africa and to explore how and why African culture might be better understood and more effectively accommodated in the business setting. We started to document how and why African culture was relevant to the work place.

I met some stellar personalities who became my mentors and teachers. Through their eyes, I began discover the valuable heritage of African culture. Through their wisdom, I learned about the gold that lies deep within the soul of this country. And ubuntu stayed with me, even thousands of miles away in America.

So returning to that unfortunate November 2000, when I watched a different President-elect assume “glory” on a television screen, the questions evoked in the aftermath of that election stayed with me. I finally settled on taking up the challenge of writing about ubuntu for Americans. This seemed a crazy idea, but I felt deeply moved and started writing. The events of September 11 2001 fuelled my motivation to write even more. By the end of 2002 I had completed an eight thousand-word article on ubuntu. It was published by the World Business Academy (, a cutting edge think tank, based in California, where I was then living.

I cried for several days after the acceptance of the article. Not only because of the awe of personal achievement but because of the feedback of Rinaldo Brutoco, founder and president of the Academy about the importance of ubuntu for the world. Brutoco, a visionary and a futurist is surrounded by fellows who are thought leaders. For Brutoco, ubuntu captured where we need to go as a planet. Then (and now) he believes that the only conscious choice we have as a planet is to acknowledge our interconnectedness, and to know that we are only people through other people, collectively responsible for creating a world economy that works for all.

The insight I gained from Brutoco is that Africa’s gift to the world is ubuntu. Sadly we don’t value ubuntu much or recognise the many ways that this concept has influenced our history. In our obsession with the politics of the day, we forget how magnificent our own transformation process has been. We don’t recognise that we are leaders in the art of dialogue that so often holds the possibility for collective transformation. This is a gift we can share if we choose to see it for ourselves.

I continue dreaming and writing about ubuntu in the midst of cynicism about the word, especially in South Africa where it is overused, misunderstood and misinterpreted. Since 2006 I have been watching out for ubuntu exemplars and collecting their stories. And since the beginning of this year, I have been excitedly following Obama, noticing his language of we – of connection. His speeches reveal a remarkable gift of articulating the bonds that connect us as human beings. He sews the golden thread of our shared humanity in his careful choice of words and images. At the end of his influential speech on race earlier this year, Obama described the mutual recognition between Ashley, a young white girl who had been eating mustard and relish sandwiches for a year, and an old black man. Asked why he was at the meeting, the black man said he was at the meeting because of Ashley. In that speech, and that story, I recognised that in Obama we have an ubuntu exemplar writ large. Really large!

Obama inspires those of us who dream to dream more, to dream with hope. He, like our beloved Madiba, inspires us to be bold and to believe in a more humane world; a world in which we value each other, care about each other, respect each other and love each other. I wrote the psalm as a global citizen with the heart of a daughter of Africa. Inspired by the oceans of change I see, I choose hope. Yes hope, even during a time when too few political leaders glow with the alchemy and magic of Madiba or Obama, in our country and in our world.

I believe that part of Obama’s gift derives, not only from his connection to the spirit of Africa, but also because of his ability to feel compassion for all people. In the epilogue of his memoir Dreams From My Father, we sense Obama’s recognition in the beautiful universality of our common humanity. He writes: “I hear the spirit of…..Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers…….I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in the Lower East side sweat shop; dust bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of their shattered lives……I hear all of these voices clamouring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life….. What is our community and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How to transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?”

My greatest hope is that we not only value what Obama is bringing to America and the world, but that while acknowledging his greatness, we recognise our own greatness as South Africans and the gift of ubuntu we can bring to the world.

- Barbara Nussbaum


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