Cultural Spotlight: Ubuntu philosophy: reciprocity and community

UBCO graduates and co-founders of the African Ubuntu Association Okanagan, Trophy Ewila and Lady Dia present I Am Because You Are vs. I Am Because You’re Not as part of the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office’s Through The Lens workshop series.

The workshop and presentation will be held online Feb. 10, 2021 and centers around the concept of ubuntu, which prioritizes the values of reciprocity and community building over competition. Ewila and Dia believe that practising ubuntu philosophy is an actionable and meaningful way of tackling overarching systems of oppression that influence how we view the world today.

“We’re trying to build a constellation instead of just one bright star,” says Ewila. “We’re trying to really demonstrate that we can live by supporting each other’s dreams and ambitions, and unity is what’s going to really help us go farther than isolation.”

Ubuntu and reciprocity

Ubuntu is a philosophy that Ewila and Dia have sought to promote ever since they met at UBC Okanagan. More than just a tool to fight against systems of oppression, it also functions as an alternative means of both viewing and operating within the world.

Trophy Ewila. | Photo courtesy of Trophy Ewila

Dia and Ewila, now married, note how their own home came to exemplify the practise of reciprocity, one of the key principles of ubuntu. In a true sense of community, the pair’s house was largely open to the community before the pandemic, free of charge, but with each household member doing what they can afford to help out. Rather than fostering a sense of needing to pay back what is taken, reciprocity can mean something as simple as playing a soothing piano tune for the household if one can’t afford to help out with dinner.

“We cook together, or someone is cooking, someone else is kind of cleaning or washing dishes…,” says Dia. “Reciprocity doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be paid back right away, but you’re always looking to see how you can help somebody else. Your eyes aren’t always focused inward on yourself, but they’re also looking outward to see, how are other people?”

Creativity and self-governance

Another principle of ubuntu that Ewila and Dia promote is that of self-governance. In essence, Ewila and Dia say self-governance is all about pushing through the restraints of expectations placed upon us by various systems of oppression.

While that can include pushing through things like racial stereotypes for example, in a broader sense, it speaks to living and acting in a manner that is most true to you. Dia describes how she, for example, has embraced the traditions of her ethnic Lozi background and creativity in order to affirm her identity in the face of institutional expectations in Western academia.

Lady Dia. | Photo courtesy of Lady Dia

“I come from a storytelling culture where we sing, and where knowledge is passed through stories. So, what I had started doing to also be resilient and to enact my culture was I started singing my papers,” says Dia. “I would say that me singing my song is a valid way of transmitting my knowledge, of depicting that knowledge. So, me being creative in that way, that is me also being resilient and saying that I’m not going to also kill this part of myself to just suit you all the time.”

Canadians might be most familiar with the term self-governance in reference to Indigenous self-governance, or the ability of Canada’s Indigenous nations to be able to govern themselves in accordance with their own values, laws and traditions. And while individual acts of self-governance might not seem like much, Ewila and Dia believe that practising this self-affirming, resilient and communitarian philosophy is indispensable to resisting oppression on a
broader scale.

“We’re trying to, in the workshop, give examples of resistance to White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society that is characteristically unequal,” says Ewila. “Resistance to the idea that I’m rich because you’re poor, or I am because you’re not.”

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