I am because you are

“I am because you are” is an African proverb that reflects Africa’s philosophy of life and culture. It expresses the idea of oneness and humanity to one another.

Ubuntu is a South African language that means “I am because you are”. The word Ubuntu is part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which means “a person is a person through other people”, and it’s all about collective humanity. Ubuntu puts humanity as a mirror to itself, as humans we need to collaborate to bring effective changes to the society which will be beneficial for all.

So how do we relate the tenets of this African proverb to the environmental crisis we are facing today? In my interpretation, humans can’t harm the basic things on which they rely, because harming society is harming oneself.

Ubuntu contradicts the Western Individualistic, Ethnocentric, and racist views which imply that the basic purpose of human life is to serve oneself. The era of colonialism portrays the need for collective responsibility using the “mask” of slavery and the “weapons” of brutality and power. This reflects the fact that we should learn to place value on every part of the community because everyone is connected, no one grows unless through the growth and progression of others.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation in 1996 said: “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another whereas you are connected and whatever you do affects the whole world.” This is exactly what Ubuntu is about, it’s a reminder that no one is an island — every single thing that you do, good or bad, affects your family, friends, and society. It also reminds us that we need to think twice about the choices we want to make and the kind of impact they may have on others.

In the African context, the interpretation of “oneness” revolves around our community. We all need each other, which affects one and tends to affect another directly or indirectly. This portrays an image that appeals to us on intellectual and emotional levels. It communicates a “human” opinion, free from a hierarchical attitude. Ubuntu is also about justice, and particularly, justice for all people. As much as we must look after each other, it is also just as important that we exercise fairness and equality for all people regardless of race, gender, or social status.

Therefore, harmonization can only be achieved through compassion, integrity, humility, equality, justice, and fairness to each other to combat global atrocities like gender inequalities, violence, corruption, and many others which tend to threaten the harmonization of humans and the society as a whole.

The concept of Ubuntu is not only restricted to humanity but also extends to other living beings like plants and animals in our environment. Harming the plants and animals unjustly is also causing harm to ourselves. The plants and animals also play a role in society, they are sources of food, labor, tools, and companionship which has helped in the existence of the human race and also helps in maintaining the ecological balance of the environment. That is why the philosophy of indigenous people, to which Ubuntu belongs, respects nature and sees nature as an extension.

Ubuntu can also serve as a basis for environmentalism, as a way of getting out of the climate crisis that we are facing. In this highly connected and interlinked digital age, Ubuntu applies to the global community. This can be a mantra for the global climate justice movement, because more than anything else, the climate agenda is truly global.

In conclusion, Ubuntu has helped us to recognize the fact that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others caring for those around us. “I am because you are”, tells us that no one can do without the other, all men should strive and work together as a collective responsibility to play their role, regardless of their social status in the society. We need to set aside our differences, ethnocentrism, and hierarchical attitudes because when society gets better; we all benefits from it.

Written by: Grace Chigbu



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