By Zara Houshmand
Mhondoro Mandaza Kandemwa is a spirit-medium and traditional healer whose presence on stage seemed an embodiment of ubuntu. He swept aside protocol and PowerPoint, and embraced the entire room. “I see that there are no hierarchies here, no VIPs, when I look through the eyes of ubuntu peacemaking and healing, as is required by a spirit of oneness,” he opened. “When I look through the eye of truth and love and justice, I see that we need healing, humanity needs healing.” Mandaza’s connection with the audience was palpable. He was the one that they would line up to consult with during the breaks, not to network but to share their own stories and questions.
Contrasting the academic analysis of ubuntu with its embodied experience, Mandaza pointed to the presence of another living exemplar present in the room, Archbishop Tutu, and described his effect on those around him: “When you become ubuntu, you attract. Even flies and butterflies will come to you.”
He told the story of how he at first resisted the spirits who appeared to him in dreams and visions because he had been born and raised Christian. He had to learn to let go of his resistance and accept the training of his ancestral spirits who taught him through dreams to become a medicine man. They taught him to recognize medicinal plants and how to use them, and gave him the responsibility of acting as a custodian of that knowledge for future generations.
The work of healing that was entrusted to him takes place on an individual level, both physical and spiritual, restoring structure and order in the face of affliction and distress. It occurs also on the community level, restoring relationships among humans, and between humans and the natural world, spirits, and ancestors. The individual work is a prerequisite for the work of peacemaking in the community, or at the national level. We must put our hearts in order first before we can heal the world, Mandaza advises: Get rid of the boundaries in our minds, so that we become “an ocean that refuses no river.” His own name, Mandaza, given to him by his ancestors, means “born of water and shall return to water.”
Speaking of the work of community building, he called for the healing of class divisions: “How many people have you made friends with who live in Soweto? … You may fly first class or economy class, but remember this plane is taking off at the same airport, and is going to land at the same airport.” He called attention to those who were missing from the room in this dialogue: the representatives of nature—trees, birds, wild animals, the waters of this world. They too participate in the web of interrelationship and community that is ubuntu. Also missing, he noted, were the children who should have been present, learning how to become citizens of a world without boundaries.
He spoke of the relationship to the land, inseparable from the people, “because land, according to indigenous wisdom, is our very own bliss. Land is our medicine, land is our food, land is our shelter.” It is also the cause of bitter wars passed down for generations and the abuses of one race or culture by another, with none exempt in the history of the world. The memory of that history lives in people’s blood, “but the spirits are saying, ‘Do not live in that yesteryear history anymore.’” Mandaza identified this peacemaking on a planetary level as a new expression of ubuntu: “Write and bring in a new history that is going to be loved, that is going to be protective of your children in future. You are the future ancestors of tomorrow. … Let us write a new story.”
Reverend Tutu van Furth reflected on the opposition between Christianity and African ancestral traditions that Mandaza had experienced as resistance to his vocation. She perceived a profound misunderstanding in the Western interpretation of Genesis, in which God grants humankind dominion over the earth, and a truer interpretation in the aboriginal relationship to the earth, in which the dominion is that of stewardship. “It is to recognize that we are always walking on holy ground. Wherever it is that our feet touch earth, we are touching that which God has created, and for which we have a burden and duty of care.” Whether it is the indigenous knowledge that allowed Polynesians to navigate the Pacific, the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, or the implicit knowledge of psychology that enables communities to heal trauma, the world needs indigenous wisdom—like ubuntu—that has been left by the wayside.
Uri Hasson questioned how the message of ubuntu—to listen and be open to accepting difference—stands up in situations where others are threatening us with violent conflict. Michael Eze acknowledged the quandary that cultures which embrace ubuntu have also experienced extreme ethnic divisions and even genocide as in Rwanda and Burundi. But he sees ubuntu, in anthropological terms, as a dynamic civil culture. Given its dynamic, dialogic nature, it can engage with other knowledge systems to evolve to a state where ethnic conflict will no longer be acceptable. And he offered the example that, in the spirit of ubuntu, he would persist in having coffee with Donald Trump, however difficult that might be.
Theo Sowa observed that it all comes down to how you define the “other” in a culture that is becoming increasingly individualistic, and our need to cultivate relationships with these others. Thupten Jinpa also related this to the current political situation in the US. Normally in a more modern, secular society one would expect less personal investment in group identities, and therefore less group conflict. The polarization of American society now is paradoxical, and seems to arise from the threat of economic marginalization and inequality. What is needed, he said, is the long-term embodiment of relational ideals like ubuntu in political institutions, much as the concept of human rights has become formally institutionalized.
Rev. Tutu countered that ubuntu can serve as a remedy for “the aggrieved we” that blames the other—often marked by race—not in a distant future of ideal policy, but as a more immediately accessible vision of the good end we want to achieve.