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Blog: 'How Ubuntu connects to broader ideas of empowerment and social justice'

When I heard that the theme of World Social Work day was “Ubuntu”, my immediate response was one of pride

By Dee Payne, Project Worker at Multi-Cultural Family Base, a Scottish organisation that promotes the well-being and life opportunities of vulnerable and disadvantaged children, young people and families.

Ubuntu is a philosophy which could be defined as a “collection of values and practices that black people of Africa, or of African origin view as making a people authentic human beings… and to be an authentic individual, is to be part of a larger, more significant relational world.” (Mugumbate & Chereni, 2020).

The meaning of Ubuntu is being debated, discussed and defined as I write this. Ahiazu (2000) writes that “It has been conceived as meaning or implying compassion, consensus, forgiveness, conversation, humanity, cooperation, hospitality, acceptance of difference, greeting, mutual support, universal brotherhood, interpersonal harmony, reciprocity, generosity, and reverence for elders (and age), though it is not seen as bearing a clearly representative term in western understanding”. Many commentators, in their discussions about Ubuntu, are acknowledging their Whiteness, and the positions of privilege that indeed enables them to write about it.

When I heard that the theme of World Social Work day was “Ubuntu”, my immediate response was one of pride. For ideas for future social development to be inspired by a guiding principle rooted in Africa, seems to me a direction towards addressing, if not undoing the legacy of Colonialism, and bringing to the fore African constructions of the world.

It is important to me however, that the concept is not distilled to purely idealistic views of kindness, generosity or sharing with each other, but instead engages with the broader ideas of empowerment and social justice.

I am born and for the most part, raised in Zimbabwe, a small landlocked country in Southern Africa which was until 1980 under colonial, and then white-minority power. Education in Zimbabwe, despite independence, continued to be constructed in primarily British narratives, and the language and concept of Ubuntu was unknown to me throughout my school years.

Perhaps my first knowledge of it was through Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who after the end of apartheid in South Africa, spoke of belonging in a: “…bundle of life. We say ‘a person is a person through other people’. It is not,’ I think therefore I am’, …. Rather ‘I am human because I belong… I participate, I share”.

Mandela and Tutu both spoke eloquently of being part of a greater whole, and of being diminished when others are “humiliated, diminished, or treated as less than a whole person”,all of which were key aspects of the apartheid system, and indeed of any society where poverty and inequality impact its’ citizens.

Despite being unfamiliar with the concept, these principles were familiar to me, as they formed, for my communities, the core behaviours and beliefs of these groups. It is perhaps these values which drew me into social work, and to MCFB which has relationship-based practice at its core. 

The families we work to support at MCFB have had experiences that have harmed or diminished them, through racism, domestic violence, basic needs being unmet or a range of traumatising experiences. Much of our work is with families who are at points of transition in their lives, and who need some support in developing or recognising their own capabilities and resources, or in navigating the systems in which parents, carers and children can thrive.

Many of the families that MCFB supports have origins in countries where historically resources have been shared among communities and families, and where it has taken “a village to raise a child”. Some of the families we work with have had to leave their family networks behind in their countries of origin. Not all of our families are new migrants, many of the young people we work with are second or third generation children of migrants, and are finding their own sense of identity and belonging in a country that may still be foreign to their parents. 

MCFB is, for some of our families, a part of the village that now raises the children. Our staff are made up of dedicated individuals from a range of cultural backgrounds, and with grounding and experience of working in a range of disciplines including Social Work, Community Education and Art Therapy. Our service provision ranges from pre-birth to adulthood, and the diversity of our service users, our staff and our students enable us to learn, understand and develop interventions to meet assessed needs. 

A great deal of our work involves respectful listening to and supporting families in safe spaces where their voices can be heard and responded to. Our groups, and summer programmes have provided opportunities for families to be less socially isolated and are facilitated to enable children to make friends, develop their social skills, and to be a part of a group where it matters how everyone is treated. 

During COVID 19, we have sought as much as is safe, to remain connected with our most vulnerable families. As we emerge from a global pandemic, where physical isolation has been the means by which individual’s health has been protected, we will consider how best to safely address the increased social isolation, and re-establish relational connections between families and in the communities we work in. 

Many of the staff and students have come to social work for a variety of reasons but at the core of our work is a desire to serve, and to be part of something that improves the life chances of the children we work with. As social workers, respect for human rights and a commitment to promoting social justice are at the core of social work practice. Ubuntu offers a lens through which we can view our social work practice, recognising the humanity of each and every individual we work with, and that if one of us is suffering, we are all diminished as individuals, and as a society. Perhaps it can be a lens through which caring for others becomes something seen as valuable, and worth investing in.