Federalism, economic development, science and technology for a United States of Africa: an Ubuntu-clustering approach.

Author:Bangura, Abdul Karim


This essay, as its title indicates, is an attempt to show how Ubuntu-clustering can be used to spark sustainable economic development in a United States of Africa. It begins with an explication of the tenets of ubuntu. This is followed by a discussion of the concept of "cluster-building." After that, an Ubuntu-clustering strategy for a United States of Africa is suggested. In the end, a conclusion is drawn. Before doing all this, however, it behooves me to note that the scientific notion of "clustering" is not new, although Ubuntu-clustering is.

Scientific clustering emerged as an important statistical application in the early 1980s as researchers studying similarly situated entities employed the Cluster Analysis methodology: a number of techniques that are utilized to create a classification. A clustering method is a multivariate statistical procedure that empirically forms "clusters" or groups of highly similar entities. It starts with a dataset containing information about a sample of entities and attempts to reorganize these entities into relatively homogenous "clusters" or groups (Aldenderfer and Blashfield, 1984:7).

Ubuntu Tenets

Based on the premise that it "brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world," the Ubuntu distribution of the Linux computer operating system is inspired by the concept. Former United States President Bill Clinton employed the term during his speech at the 2006 British Labour Party conference in the United Kingdom to explain why society is vital. The concept is the founding philosophy of the Ubuntu Education Fund, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) working with orphans and vulnerable children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The Boston Celtics, champions of the 2008 National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States, have chanted ubuntu when breaking a huddle since the start of the 2007-2008 season. Ubuntu Cola is a soft drink made with Fairtrade sugar from Malawi and Zambia. Ubuntu is the theme of the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church (in the United States), whose logo includes the text "I in You and You in Me."

The concept of ubuntu is illustrated in the film In My Country about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche. The concept also inspired the title of the documentary film I Am Because We Are directed by Nathan Rissman and produced by Raising Malawi founder Madonna (Wikipedia, 2009). So, what is all this talk about ubuntu?

To begin with, ubuntu is a word from the Southern African Nguni language family (IsiNdebele, IsiSwati/IsiSwazi, IsiXhosa and IsiZulu) meaning humanity or fellow feeling; kindness (http:www.wordreference.com). In the Shona language, the majority spoken African language in Zimbabwe, ubuntu is unhu maning the same. In Kinyarwanda, the mother tongue in Rwanda, and in Kirundi, the mother tongue in Burundi, ubuntu means, among other things, "human generosity" as well as humanity. In Runyakitara, a collection of language varieties spoken by the Banyankore, Banyoro, Batooro and Bakiga of Western Uganda and also the Bahaya, Banyambo and others of Northern Tanzania, obuntu refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humaneness towards others. In Luganda, the language of the Baganda in Central Uganda, obuntu means being humane and refers to the same characteristics (Wikipedia, 2009).

By drawing from many works that have dealt with the concept of ubuntu and similar African thoughts on communalism, I (Bangura, 2005) deduced that ubuntu serves as the spiritual foundation of African societies. It is a unifying vision or worldview enshrined in the maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: i.e. "a person is a person through other persons." This traditional African aphorism articulates a basic respect and compassion for others. It can be interpreted as both a factual description and a rule of conduct or social ethic. It both describes the human being as "being-with-others" and prescribes what that should be.

Also, from the consulted works (for these works, see Bangura, 2005), at least three major tenets of ubuntu can be delineated. The first major tenet of ubuntu rests upon its religiosity. While Western Humanism tends to underestimate or even deny the importance of religious beliefs, ubuntu or African Humanism is decidedly religious. For the Westerner, the maxim, "A person is a person through other persons," has no obvious religious connotations. S/he will probably think it is nothing more than a general appeal to treat others with respect and decency. However, in African tradition, this maxim has a deeply religious meaning. The person one is to become "through other persons" is, ultimately, an ancestor. By the same token, these "other persons" include ancestors, who are extended family. Dying is an ultimate homecoming. Not only must the living and the dead share with and care for one another, but the living and the dead depend on one another.

This religious tenet is congruent with the daily experience of most Africans. For example, at a calabash, an African ritual that involves drinking of African beer, a little bit of it is poured on the ground for consumption by ancestors. Many Africans also employ ancestors as mediators between them and God. In African societies, there is an inextricable bond between humans, ancestors and the Supreme Being. Therefore, ubuntu inevitably implies a deep respect and regard for religious beliefs and practices.

The second major tenet of ubuntu hinges upon its consensus building. African traditional cultures have an almost infinite capacity for the pursuit of consensus and reconciliation. African style democracy operates in the form of (sometimes extremely lengthy) discussions. Although there may be a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, every person gets an equal chance to speak up until some kind of an agreement, consensus, or group cohesion is reached. This important aim is expressed by words like simunye ("we are one": i.e. "unity is strength") and slogans like "an injury to one is an injury to all."

The desire to agree within the context of ubuntu safeguards the rights and opinions of individuals and minorities to enforce group solidarity. In essence, ubuntu requires an authentic respect for human/individual rights and related values, and an honest appreciation of differences.

The third major tenet of ubuntu rests upon dialogue, with its particularity, individuality and historicality. Ubuntu inspires us to expose ourselves to others, to encounter the differences of their humanness in order to inform and enrich our own. Thus understood, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu translates as "To be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognizing the humanity of others in its infinite variety of content and form." This translation of ubuntu highlights the respect for particularity, individuality and historicality, without which a true African communal paradigm cannot reemerge.

The ubuntu respect for the particularities of the beliefs and practices of others is especially emphasized by the following striking translation of umuntu ngumentu ngabantu: "A human being through (the otherness of) other human beings." Ubuntu dictates that, if we were to be human, we need to recognize the genuine otherness of our fellow humans. In other words, we need to acknowledge the diversity of languages, histories, values and customs, all of which make up a society.

Ubuntu's respect for the particularity of the other is closely aligned to its respect for individuality. But the individuality which ubuntu respects is not the Cartesian type. Instead, ubuntu directly contradicts the Cartesian conception of individuality in terms of which the individual or self can be conceived without thereby necessarily conceiving the other. The Cartesian individual exists prior to, or separately and independently from, the rest of the community or society. The rest of society is nothing but an added extra to a pre-existent and self-sufficient being.

This "modernistic" and "atomistic" conception of individuality underscores both individualism and collectivism. Individualism exaggerates the seemingly solitary aspects of human existence to the detriment of communal aspects. Collectivism makes the same mistake on a larger scale. For the collectivist, society comprises a bunch of separately existing, solitary (i.e. detached) individuals.

Contrastingly, ubuntu defines the individual in terms of his/her relationship with others. Accordingly, individuals only exist in their relationships with others; and as these relationships change, so do the characters of the individuals. In this context, the word "individual" signifies a plurality of personalities corresponding to the multiplicity of relationships in which the individual in question stands. Being an individual, by definition, means "being-with-others." "With-others" is not an additive to a pre-existent and self-sufficient being; instead, both this being (the self) and the others find themselves in a whole wherein they are already related. This is all somewhat boggling for the Cartesian mind, whose conception of individuality must now move from solitary to solidarity, from independence to interdependence, from individuality vis-a-vis community to individuality a la community. In African Peace Paradigms (2008), I explore the following five African cases that are undergirded by ubuntu tenets: (1) the Transformative Impact of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; (2) Ameliorating the Pains and Cicatrix of the War in Liberia through Bartee; (3) the Road to Recovery for Former Child Soldiers via the Ritual Bath in Sierra Leone; (4) the Gacaca Peace Initiative in Rwanda; and (5) Monarchical Rule in Swaziland. In a more recent essay titled "African Peace Paradigms: Examples from Barack Obama" (in press), I examine the ubuntu underpinnings in some of President Obama's discourse and actions.


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