Bulala as An Ubuntu-Inspired Approach to Enhancing Organizational Culture in Rural Kenya.

AuthorLutomia, Anne Namatsi


Organizational culture comprises a set of complex values, beliefs, assumptions, language, social practices, norms, and symbols that guide the way a firm or organization acts (Morgan, 2006; Schein, 2004) There is general agreement that organizations with a grounded culture perform well financially and emphasize managerial and leadership values and beliefs found in organizational culture, generally (Peters, Waterman, & Jones, 1982). These values are upheld by organizations that inform how business is conducted and how employees, customers, suppliers, and stakeholders are treated. Organizational culture is thought to be good because it triggers innovation, flexibility, and on-going superior financial performance (Kossek, Lobel, & Brown, 2006; McLean, 2005).

Barney (1985) describes three conditions necessary if organizational culture can be sustainable and maintained with a superior financial performance. First, the culture has to be valuable, meaning it has to facilitate the organization to do things that yield high output and low cost. Secondly, the culture has to be rare, meaning that the organization stands out from similar others, and has a clear 'identity'. Finally, the culture has to be imperfectly imitable, meaning that while other organizations may try, they cannot easily or successfully imitate ambience of the organization. And if attempted, imitating organizations will encounter disadvantages, e.g., a loss of reputation or a lack of the very experience they seek to imitate.

The emergence of an organizational culture is usually credited to leaders, who often learn how to lead in the course of developing the culture. Also, strategic thinking and culture-building are usually credited to organizational leaders as well. Strategic thinking gives vision to the organization's future, while culture-building is important because it provides a context for that vision to occur. The vision of the organization that results from strategic thinking and culture-building outlines its characteristics, behaviors, and the ethos, and therefore, its culture. For example, how groups work together will align with how they can help or hinder organizational performance. Cummings and Worley (2009) noted that interventions are key to building performance norms amongst heterogeneous workgroups, and also for conflict management and developing group effectiveness. Similarly, French, Bell, and Zawacki (1983) pointed out that intergroup relations are especially important for organizations, further observing group and individual interdependence with respect to task accomplishment. The need to build organizational culture through leadership, vision, and organizational norms is widely established, if not always practiced, or practiced deftly (Cummings & Worley, 2009; Schein, 2004).

Organizational culture in Kenya cannot be discussed without considering the cultural practices and history of British colonialism, as the legacies and vestiges of colonization still linger in organizations. And interestingly, the colonial strategy of divide and rule introduced hierarchies within communities that continue to divide African people along class and ethnic lines.

The introduction of industrialization and capitalist modes of production also led to a hybridity of culture, local and foreign, where in most cases, local practice was demonized and held down while foreign enterprises were deified and upheld (Hackett, 2003). African countries and organizations are now faced with corruption, embezzlement, and the granting of favors driven by the elite class structures. Subsequently, differences along class and ethnic lines have become more visible. According to Kamoche (2000), Kenyan managers have reported ethnic differences in some cases leading to conflict. Additionally, Kamoche (1992) had earlier observed that ethnic favoritism exists in recruitment and promotion, while Nyambegera (2002) writes that the effects of negative stereotypes and ethical considerations around ethnicity are not fully understood and require more research.

Despite these liabilities, Kenyan workplaces also have assets. The community-wide group-oriented cultural practice of harambee (Swahili: to pull together or do something together; hence, pooling together resources) used to assist friends, families, and communities is also practiced at the workplace. This, and similar practices can inform organizational culture. Yet, much research on African organizations does so using Western paradigms and lenses despite the interest by African people for understanding in how their indigenous values inform organizational practices, as only scant research has been done in that regard and thus, sheds new light on organizational culture theory in general (Bolden & Kirk, 2009). Using a case study of organizational structure in one rural Kenya county, this paper explores how employee engagement in Bulala builds organizational culture, simply to record these practices, and to frame Bulala as a resource for increasing performance, productivity, and humanism in Western workplaces.

Ubuntu: Nature and Characteristic

To understand Bulala, it helps to understand the more widely known notion of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, one of several related African ethical-values as a worldview; between these, "there are commonalities... in areas such as value systems, beliefs, practices, and others" (Mnyaka & Motlhabi, 2005, p. 215). As a word, Ubuntu denotes humanism or humanness; it is a South African word, but related terms across Africa, including Bulala, portend the same thing. It should not be deemed a philosophy, unless by philosophy is meant a specific, culturally grounded ethical framework for action that is community-oriented. For this reason, it seems nebulous or vague when abstracted away from its cultural context; in specific cultural contexts, however, what is Ubuntu (what is "humanness") is usually very clearly defined by community norms.

Even as an abstraction, however, it remains illuminating. Louw (1998) highlights the Nguni community saying, "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" (a human being is a human being through the otherness of other human beings). The word Ubuntu is frequently paraphrased, "I am because others are, and because others are, I am" (Forster, 2010). Limiting ourselves to a Cartesian/Western framework, this mandates that a "need to recognize the genuine otherness of our fellow citizens" (Louw, 1998, p. 6), however, it goes much further than this. Commenting on Kagame's (1956) magisterial linguistic/grammatical analysis of the Bantu word ntu (roughly "being") as found in Ubuntu, Mudimbe (1985) observes that "the Bantu equivalent of 'to be' [ntu] is strictly and only performed as a copula" (p. 189), that is, as a grammatical connector of two things. In the sentence "the night sky is black," for instance, "is" as a copula expresses no existence in itself, but interrelates two things; similarly, then, the "am" of "I am because others are" posits no ontology in itself but interlinks to things "I" and "others" that do. On this ground, Mudimbe (1985) notes that the Cartesian "I am" not only cannot express ntu but that it is as yet incomplete; whatever the Cartesian "I" links to by its "am," it remains unstated.

From this African humanist starting point, ethical considerations follow. Mbiti (1990) noted, "Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual" (Mbiti, 1990, p. 108). This is not simply a call for a recognition or philosophy of the other (viz. Hegel, Levinas, Buber), but more a recognition of a constitutive other, without which existence does not occur. There is more of an emphasis on the community first in general, though as Achebe (1980) makes clear in interviews and his works set in Africa, this community orientation is not denigrating of the individual (Achebe, 1980; Wattie, 1979) while Mbiti (1990) offers two other formulations of Ubuntu as "we are, therefore I am" and " I am because we are, since we are therefore I am" (Mbiti, 1990, pp. 36, 215), the Cartesian "I am" sounds perhaps too loudly. Similarly in the formation of Ubuntu as stating, "a person is a person among other persons" (Broodryk, 2006a, 2006b; Dolamo, 2013; Tutu, 1999). Khoza (2006) translated it as 'humanness'. Etieyibo (2014) and Broodryk (2006b) employed the term to encompass the basic values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, and a community orientation. We emphasize this distinction of ntu within the term as much to be accurate as also to avoid a tendency to collapse new or different ideas too quickly into already familiar ones that do not reflect or preserve the term's distinction.

Again in the abstract, away from its cultural context, Bangura (2005) delineated three generally prevalent "axioms" in Ubuntu: (1) a religiosity or spirituality centered in the moral life, beliefs, and practices of a community; (2) a social emphasis on consensus building, as an African-style, democratic form for conflict resolution and group cohesion; and (3) dialogue, which is the ability to hold conversations with others and to make meaning of life through dialogue. Bakhtin (1994) has similarly written of a form of 'truth'--and thus also instances of meaning-making--that can only be arrived at dialogically, via the interaction of historically embedded, concrete persons.

Above all, the assumed (or factual) irreducible interdependence of people--and thus an entire host of social claims upon one another that arises out of that interdependence--distinguishes a fundamental aspect of Ubuntu and related terms like Bulala, as distinct from a hypothesized (unbridgeable) independence between people that thus severs, denies, or only much more narrowly acknowledges any human social claims upon one another in the world.

The African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) have called for an African Renaissance and...

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