Huhnu (Ubuntu): The African Way Of Life

04 Apr

In my previous post I shared some of my thoughts on what culture is and what it means to me. I confessed to being a culture vulture that has voraciously incorporated many elements of different cultures into my own individual culture. By the end of that post I had come to the sad conclusion that even though I was open to other ‘alien’ cultures I hadn’t made a reasonable enough effort to acquaint myself with my own indigenous Shona culture. In this post I want to discuss what is the blueprint of my own Shona culture and that of most culture in Sub-Saharan Africa which is known as ubuntu/hunhu.

The word ubuntu comes from Zulu and Xhosa languages. Loosely translated it means ‘humanity towards others’. Its thrust is on ‘the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity’. In the Shona ubuntu is the same as hunhu. The concept of ubuntu in Zimbabwe is similar to that of other African cultures. Because I am Zimbabwean and Shona I will be using the shone term hunhu to explain the philosophy that is also known by my brothers and sisters across the Limpopo as Ubuntu.

Hunhu refers to a person’s character, spirituality, disposition and sense of responsibility. One’s hunhu determines how one is regarded in society—a person with hunhu is respected, one without hunhu is an outcast. Hunhu is best summarised by the statement ‘munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu’, a person is a person through other people.

After independence in 1980, Stanlake Samkange (1922–1988), a Zimbabwean historiographer, educator and African nationalist, attempted to systematise an African epistemology in Hunhuism or Ubuntuism. Stanlake Samkange highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism that shape this philosophy:

Hunhuism, Ubuntuism logos


The first maxim asserts that

To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.’

And the second maxim means that

if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life’.

The third ‘maxim’ as a

if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life’.

While sharing is incorporated within hunhu, it is only one of the many virtues of hunhu. In the hunhu domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions – all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try his or her best to make visitors comfortable – and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality. This aspect of hunhu is still somewhat present in Shona culture. If you enter any Shona home today your host will almost always offer you something to eat or drink.

Other manifestations of hunhu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. You will never find Shona children calling their parents or aunts and uncles by their first names. It is considered disrespectful. Because of this the individual identity is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual. Each individual is an ambassador of their family and where they come from. Thus, families are reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for. Hunhu embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.

A key concept associated with hunhu is how we behave and interact in our various social roles, e.g., daughters-in-law traditionally kneel down when greeting their parents-in-law and serve them food as a sign of respect and maintain the highest standards of behaviour that will be extended or reflected to her family and all the women raised in that family. The daughter-in-law does this as part of the ambassadorial function that she plays and assumes at all times. However, this does not apply only to daughters-in-law but to all women in general, even among friends and equals such as brother and sister, and this does not imply that the woman is subordinate to the man, or sister to brother. It is all essentially considered to be a characteristic of having hunhu and a social interaction within the context of hunhu. The demands imposed upon men within the context of hunhu are more physically demanding than that placed upon the woman.

Under hunhu children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with hunhu will never allow any child around them to be an orphan. Under hunhu it literally takes a village to raise a child.

A leader who has hunhu is selfless and consults widely and listens to subjects. Such a person does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from the subjects and lives among them and shares property. A leader who has hunhu does not lead, but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with hunhu.

Hunhu at its core puts the community first and everything we do is in relation to and a reflection of that community. Hunhu teaches us that humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely ‘I am’. If we follow the concept of hunhu as our ancestors intended us then it means each and every individual is an ambassador of not only the community they come from but their culture as a whole.

After researching the concept of hunhu I am left with the understanding that at its heart is a conscious sense of humanity and community. There is a sincere warmth with which people treat both strangers and members of the community. This overt display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (co-operatives if you will). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the value of warmth. How else are you to ask for sugar from your neighbour? Warmth is not the sine qua non of community formation but guards against instrumentalist relationships. Unfortunately, sincere warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives.

When I look at the current state of Shona culture I realise that most of us no longer hold ourselves accountable to some of the key elements of Hunhu. Ours is now a culture of individualism. Urbanisation has meant that the extended family has become a dysfunctional unit and most of us now live in the cities where we sometimes do not even know or acknowledge our neighbours. Even fewer of us visit our traditional rural homes or a part of larger representative community. What does this mean for our culture? Does this mean we have lost our humanity? That we no longer have hunhu?

All I know is that one of the strategies that the colonisers employed was that of “divide and conquer”. Looking at the way we relate to each now you can see that they succeeded in dividing us as people. Even our own leaders no longer extol the values of hunhu only seeking to enrich themselves. So even though we are “free” from colonialist oppression and rule they definitely managed to conquer our culture. And now we are all culture vultures feeding off the scraps of others cultures and neglecting our own.

They are still winning. We are far from free.

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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


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