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franciscan - September 1999

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

African Christians

by Brother Nolan Tobias SSF

I am conscious, as I reflect on the contribution that African Christians can offer the western world, that Africa is so often perceived by the media as the ‘lost continent’, a continent overrun by countless problems: such as terrible and debilitating poverty, the tragic mismanagement of a few available resources, corruption, political instability and social chaos, unemployment, international debt, refugee problems, Aids, tribalism and ethnic conflict, the arms’ trade . . . The list is endless.

But as I reflect on my experience of living in a Europe that is becoming more and more secular, I am concerned for the rugged individualism that is prevalent in a very competitive society. I am conscious as I meet people in their different contexts of their feeling profoundly unloved, lonely, unaffirmed and isolated. There are those who cling to the ideals of individualism, independence and self-sufficiency and there are the many who yearn for a sense of community and for a space where it is safe to be loved and affirmed by those who are trustworthy.

Within my context and experience, there is a concept that is very much used in sub-Saharan Africa. There is an understanding of a fundamental African concept known as ubuntu. Ubuntu is a term very much in vogue in the new South Africa. Its central concern is that human beings have worth in any society. Ubuntu is an Nguni word which has at its heart the experience of humanness. It is the thread that runs through people’s relationships with family members, neighbours and strangers. In African thought, there is the emphasis on the fact that an individual exists in community. There is a Xhosa proverb that states that Umuntu ngumntu ngabanye abantu, which means that a person is a person through other persons. In Sotho there is an expression: Motho ke motho ka batho, which endorses the idea that a human being is a human being with, by and for other human beings. John Pobee, that well-known African theologian, claims ‘It is often said that where Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am’, the African would say, ‘I am related, therefore we are’.’

In conclusion, I believe that ubuntu is fundamental to the African understanding of life, but it is sustained by people living in community, in groups and families. I believe that human beings can find their true fulfilment in relationship and not in pursuing selfish individual interests. Human beings profoundly need one another. Human beings are interdependent. Ubuntu endorses the fact that my humanity is caught up in your humanity.

This is what I believe African Christianity has to offer the whole world. This is what we have to offer fragmented societies. The world is yearning for those who are able to say, ‘I am, therefore we are’. A person is a person though other persons belonging to one family, the human family, God’s family, on which the Christian principle of koinonia is based. §

Brother Nolan Tobias SSF was featured in the May 1999 issue photographed after receiving his diploma at Edinburgh University for a Master’s Degree in Theology.


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