Over the past month, violence against foreigners in South Africa has topped the headlines. Conversation Zimbabwe contributors have written on various aspects of the scourge. Eleph Gula-Ndebele kicked off by asking us to reflect on what is wrong with xenophobia. Guest contributor Richard Mahomva sought to find reason in the attacks and pointed blame not only on South Africans. In her piece, Ottilia Anna Maunganidze sought to dispel myths around xenophobia and called for multi-layered and multi-stakeholder responses. Last week, Pride Jani delved into how a historically oppressive education system has resulted in some South Africans’ irrational hatred of foreigners.
Pride’s piece alluded to the need to rediscover ourselves and embrace Africanness. His article also touched on the disregard for the concept of “Hunhu” or “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu“, that is, “a person is a person through other persons.” (in Shona: “Munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu”).
I believe that we are, today, witnessing the slow death of the practice of hunhu, the sense of community and togetherness as it is replaced by a culture of individualism. I am not, by any means, an expert on Pan-Africanism ideologies or African moral philosophy of Hunhuism or Ubuntu. However, my personal experiences on what constitutes hunhu and the practices are ample fodder for me to argue that as things continue to change and as we “progress” and become more “westernised and modern”, that sense of community we grew up with seems to be getting eroded.
I don’t intend to romanticise the “good old days” but I believe we are becoming more and more detached from each other as communities and broadly as Africans. Moreover, the moral underpinnings that constitute hunhu and tsika appear to be getting eroded and the ties that used to bind us are becoming weaker.
While brainstorming on this issue, a friend coincidentally tweeted a thought that spoke to my musings, he wrote (on his social interaction with a neighbour he barely knows)
After seeing these posts, I latched on to the opportunity to bounce my thoughts off @chabveyis since my article was going to be around similar issues he raised. Our interaction centred on the essence of hunhu and our humanity, tsika (morals). I asked him if and how the basic moral values on hunhu are being taught and respected to which he responded, “it does seem like the more society/civilisation progresses, the more impersonal we get. Simple things like greeting any elder […] parenting these days seems to be based on individual excellence even at the expense of the communal good. Chero zvangu zvafire [as long as I’m fine]”. How true these assertions are remains a matter of debate.
My question intended and still intends to explore the different sites of hunhu didacticism, particularly the family institution and schools as agencies of socialisation and question the role of these institutions in building individuals who become part of communities, society and broadly nation states (not as ideological state apparatus to maintain order). Are these institutions doing enough to build and rebuild moral values, community, social and cultural ties especially in the context of pressing economic realities with an impact on social values and moral fabric?
Hunhu of old
The point and question raised by @chabveyis on who to turn to in time of need speaks to the basic principles of hunhu, based on “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” even in times of need and grief or in times of plenty. The chiShona adage, “chara chimwe hachitswanyi inda” [loosely translated: one finger can not crush a louse/lice] means that individualism breeds failure but in order to achieve success it’s better to work as a team.
“chara chimwe hachitswanyi inda”
Examples of such practices that we used to see growing up is when there was a funeral in the community or neighbourhood, the community members would come together “kubatira pamwe” or working together, it was not just a family affair. Each family/household would contribute/donate food portions of maize meal and money “chema” [monetary and/or material contribution as condolences] to help the grieving family. Whether this is still in practice I am not sure but I can speculate that if you barely know your neighbours it’s improbable to expect anything from them in time of need or otherwise. It seems funeral insurance and services are now being relied on in such situations as the role of the community and the spirit of togetherness diminishes.
Similarly, the traditional “Zunde raMambo/Isiphala seNkosi” (the chief’s granary/barn), a traditional community social-food security initiative had its roots in the philosophy of community cooperation and it exemplifies the essence of hunhu, looking out for the vulnerable in the community. The Zunde raMambo/Isiphala seNkosi guaranteed food to older persons, widows, orphans and persons with disabilities ahead of those who could easily fend for themselves. Notwithstanding the political and economic challenges, the abject poverty most people in society live in that we seemingly have become desensitised to, the huge number of children and women begging on the streets speaks to our failures as a people to deal with our own problems at community and at national level.
If only the same enthusiasm or verve that some people have in donating money/resources to their respective church leaders or political formations could be translated towards community good/development, the concept of hunhu could not be in death throes.
Another example is how weddings used to be a community affair, “muchato uchidaidzirwa (inviting) the whole neighbohood”, vanhu vodya rice and chicken vachitamba marecords/band (people would eat rice and chicken while celebrating and dancing). However, notwithstanding economic hardships, these days you will be lucky to get a wedding invite from your neighbours and I would speculate it has to do with the weakening family and community ties (and there could be various reasons to explain this, maybe far from my speculation).
Saka todii?: Revisiting and revising our roots
Going back to the issue of hunhuism, Shona folklore taught and celebrated hunhu/ubuntu as a collective and communal moral philosophy. The teachings are encapsulated in various proverbs that speak to the principle hunhu and a sense of community. While these teachings are great in theory, the practice of such moral principles fall short as exemplified by our lethargic public institutions, hypocrisy of our politics and governance practices which have deviated from common good to a self-serving and individualistic ends.
Ottilia’s article on tsika explored in great detail the concept of morals and the “Zimbabwean stance on morality and the out-in-the-public conservatism of Zimbabwean society”. In her article, Ottilia further raises concern on how tsika is trivialised and corrupted to serve patriarchal and individual ends. “Your morality is quickly assessed by complete strangers based on what you wear and how low you bow or kneel when you greet your elders – especially the male ones.” She surely makes good points and as she notes, it is imperative that we redefine tsika and hunhu constructively without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In my re-evaluation of tsika in the context of hunhuism, for example, the essence of tsika is not entirely how you greet an elder (kutyora muzura/kneeling) but the genuine spirit of concern about each other’s wellbeing. For example the greeting mangwanani, marara sei, (good morning, did you sleep well?) whose response is normally ndarara zvakanaka kana mararawo (I slept well only if you slept well). As Chaplin submits in Shona and other African cultures “we are so connected that if you don’t sleep well, or if you were not having a good day, how could I sleep well or have a good day. This kind of greeting would apply to a stranger one met on the road as well as a friend or family.”
While acknowledging things are changing, it is worth taking stock of what’s being lost or compromised. I merely scratched the surface and presumed that as we become modernised some of the moral and cultural practices that used to connect us are slipping away to the detriment of our communities. There is much more to learn.
- F Mangena, Towards a hunhu/ubuntu dialogical moral theory Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa, University of Fort Hare, South Africa. http://phronimon.co.za/index.php/phroni/article/viewFile/75/58
- J Dhemba, P Gumbo, J Nyamusara, Social Security in Zimbabwe : Phase II: Zunde raMambo and Burial Societies
- K Chaplin, The Ubuntu spirit in African communities http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/culture/Cities/Publication/BookCoE20-Chaplin.pdf