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Ubuntu: A person is a person because of other people

Lately, I have been contemplating the Southern African philosophy of ubuntu. One of its most well-known expressions is the Zulu proverb “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”: a…

Lately, I have been contemplating the Southern African philosophy of ubuntu. One of its most well-known expressions is the Zulu proverb “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”: a person is a person because of other people. As human beings, we are called to express our humanness by being present for other humans. Like Ndi Igbo say, when an animal’s back itches, it scratches it against a tree, but when a person’s back itches, they find someone to scratch it.

Millionaire TV show host Steve Harvey once shared the story of a couple who helped him out when he was a struggling comedian running a carpet cleaning business. The couple could never have envisioned how big Steve would become, and Steve never forgot the help they gave him. His public acknowledgment of this couple on his show is a reminder to help however we can because we can never tell what majestic dreams we are ‘midwifing’ into the world.

Nigeria, particularly, is facing challenges at the moment, and the difficulties of daily life can be overwhelming. Everything is a luxury, even rice, which was a staple in almost every family’s weekly menu in the past. It is natural that sometimes, giving fatigue will set in. However, if you’re lucky/blessed enough to be on the “giving” side, it behoves on you to remember that you are privileged, and that your help could be empowering, and could be the fishing line you’re giving someone to help them become fishers themselves.

I recall a student who hoped to raise money to pay for his result to be released (or something) and hopped onto Twitter to ask for help. Later, he posted that he was successful in raising the funds and was applying for scholarships for an MSc. programme. Through the generosity of others, he was able to overcome a financial hurdle and pursue his dreams of further education. The cycle of poverty in his family might be in the process of being plugged by the opportunities he’s got.

I admit that not everyone who asks for help wants to be helped. Some feel entitled to your resources and just want to be given handouts. Some demand that you fund a lifestyle for them that they can ill afford. Someone told me once of a relative of hers asking her for a car, but then she asked the relative how he would afford fuel for the car or pay for the car’s regular maintenance? After all, this was a relative who had previously complained of finding it difficult to feed his children three times a day.

Another friend has an uncle who inundates her with one-liners, asking for money to be sent for everything from a new phone to a new roof. Sometimes, the messages are back-to-back, giving no room even for my friend to respond to one before another request comes flying in.

Another person has a relative who harasses her with one harebrained idea for a business after another, changing business proposals as soon as he’s asked to explain how exactly the business would work. These are not the people I am asking anyone to enable. The pattern of dependency is bad behaviour that shouldn’t be encouraged at all. Plus, I am also a believer in setting boundaries.

However, these individuals should not be anyone’s excuse for not helping those who need genuine help. The Nigerian middle class has been effectively eroded. You are either wealthy or you are looking for ways to manage yourself and your family. A 2.5kg tin of Nido, someone posted on Twitter, is over N42,000 in a country where some folks earn N40,000 a month. It’s important to approach each request with discernment and compassion.

My message today is simple: extend a helping hand to others, regardless of their socioeconomic status or background. One never knows how transformative one’s help would be. In a world often marked by individualism and self-interest, the philosophy of ubuntu serves as a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and shared humanity. Be that person that when your fellow human comes with an itchy back, you are willing to scratch it for them.

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