The fight against mental illnesses has advanced significantly throughout human history. However, it becomes evident that our modern world is still struggling with a mental health crisis when we reflect back to the Middle Ages, with its widespread misunderstanding and frequently cruel treatment of persons suffering from mental diseases.

Amidst the complexity and pressures of contemporary life, people everywhere today deal with a wide range of issues, including poverty, social isolation, stigma, prejudice, and childhood traumas. These issues are further compounded by pandemics, natural catastrophes, and conflicts. These difficulties take the form of different psychiatric disorders that have a significant influence on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

 In a community in which Ubuntu is the underpinning life philosophy and way of life, these values could be reinstated and revived to promote the survival and recovery of families living with mental illness in the community, and to reintroduce humanness in the community. Think of it for a minute before you shun away from your cultural values what they could give your mental health, I personally believe in the transformative power of unity and interconnectedness and always imagine what it gives us if we value it.

The humanization of the mental healthcare system can, in my opinion, be achieved by incorporating the ancient Ubuntu principles into it. Information about the state of mental health in many African countries appears to have gotten worse, which raises concerns about the statistics surrounding the continent’s mental healthcare system. Keeping all of this in mind, we observe some significant legislative advancements, but numbers have instead continued to rise. Many of these illnesses continue to go untreated despite advancements in knowledge and care, which poses serious obstacles to social, psychological, and emotional well-being. The stigma and disparities in mental healthcare still exist worldwide, despite the fact that we have gotten past the belief from the Middle Ages that mental illnesses are a form of divine retribution.

I think preserving and incorporating Ubuntu values as a moral philosophical theory could work in Africa? It is one of the values that we should center on even in our legislations so that we have values of what we are trying to revolutionise with even the ever changing technological systems. In its simplicity, Ubuntu means humaneness or humanity. So, when we can bring the values of Ubuntu into mental healthcare, individuals can see themselves, and we can address the issues around stigmatisation. Incorporating Ubuntu into mental health would give it a human face so people could feel they were seen.

 

Ubuntu

This does not mean putting faces of individuals [who are living with mental health difficulties] as an advertisement. What I mean by this is that if we find values, ethical values or moral theory that will be able to bring about a human face to this sickness in our society to make it easier for individuals to recognise themselves, and know that they are seen and will be cared for and get the help they need.”  Through Ubuntu [I am because you are] in essence, translated to, “I am able to also take care of you because I would be taking care of myself through you”.

In Zimbabwe, an intricate web of customs, traditions, and belief systems threads its way through the diverse tapestry of cultures. Of these, none resonate quite as deeply as the concept of ‘Ubuntu’. Ubuntu, a complex Nguni Bantu term, infuses itself into every aspect of Zimbabwean culture, shaping social norms, inspiring traditions, and informing worldview. Let’s quickly have a close look into the concept of Ubuntu, its origins, implications, and its enduring influence on African society and beyond.

Global initiatives are outlined in the World Health Organization’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2030, but the statistics are still startling. One in eight persons suffer from a mental illness, accounting for over 450 million people worldwide. There are twenty times as many suicide attempts as fatalities. Despite the enormous burden, mental health, especially in middle-income nations, receives a disproportionately small amount of healthcare funds and has restricted access to specialists.

The current worldwide mental health problem offers a significant chance to promote Ubuntu as a remedy. Deeply ingrained in African philosophy and culture, ubuntu holds great wisdom that can provide a different perspective.

As I champion ubuntu as a solution from Africa to the global mental health crisis, I’m reminded of a quote from American memoirist and poet Maya Angelou, who once said: “When you learn, teach; when you get, give.” Africa has long embraced ubuntu, a profound philosophical and ethical concept deeply ingrained in African culture. Originating from African languages, ubuntu broadly translates to “humanity towards others” or “I am because we are”. It is high time we share this invaluable ethos with the world, offering it as an alternative solution to the challenges of mental illness.

With its roots firmly planted in African tradition, the ubuntu philosophy presents a holistic perspective on mental health. It underscores the interconnectedness of individuals, emphasising that personal well-being is intricately linked to the welfare of the community. By nurturing strong social bonds and fostering communal support, ubuntu creates an environment that is conducive to positive mental health outcomes. Unlike approaches that prioritise individualism, ubuntu places emphasis on relationships and communal harmony, thereby cultivating a supportive social fabric that contributes significantly to emotional well-being.

Unlike Western individualistic approaches, ubuntu prioritises relationships and communal harmony. It recognises that individual well-being is inseparable from community welfare, and emphasises the importance of strong social bonds and communal support in fostering positive mental health outcomes. In a world where personal achievements often overshadow collective well-being, ubuntu reminds us of the significance of harmonious relationships, mutual support and a shared sense of belonging.

Communities that are rooted in ubuntu principles foster a supportive social environment that promotes emotional well-being. They provide robust social support networks that give individuals a profound sense of belonging, and act as buffers against stress and isolation. Ubuntu-driven communities counteract the loneliness epidemic by encouraging regular social interactions and shared experiences that actively promote psychological well-being.

Moreover, ubuntu fosters a sense of collective efficacy, where community members believe in collaborative goal achievement. Shared cultural values create an environment that mitigates the impact of cultural stressors on mental health. In ubuntu-driven communities, individuals have opportunities to actively contribute, fostering a sense of purpose and accomplishment that positively impacts self-esteem and mental well-being.

Importantly, ubuntu can play a pivotal role in reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues within communities. Its core principles of interconnectedness, shared humanity and collective responsibility lay the foundation for understanding, empathy and acceptance. Ubuntu promotes open dialogue, normalising discussions about mental health and encouraging individuals to share their experiences openly. By emphasising shared humanity, ubuntu challenges the “us versus them” mentality often associated with mental health stigma, and fosters a culture of empathy and compassion.

In ubuntu-driven communities, mental health is not seen solely as an individual concern, but as a shared responsibility for the welfare of all members. By actively creating mentally healthy environments and challenging stigma, ubuntu empowers communities to support one another in times of need.

As Africa leads the way in championing ubuntu principles, it has the opportunity to offer invaluable lessons to the global community. By embracing ubuntu and its emphasis on interconnectedness, communal support and collective responsibility, we can pave the way for a more compassionate, understanding and mentally healthy world for all. 

Origins and Evolution of Ubuntu

The concept of Ubuntu traces its roots to the ancient African societies, predominantly those in Southern Africa. Ubuntu emerged as an integral part of life, providing a framework for social interactions, community living, and conflict resolution.

In the post-apartheid era in South Africa, Ubuntu gained prominence as a tool for social healing and national reconciliation. It became a philosophical foundation for new constitutional values and played a crucial role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Ubuntu derives from Nguni and Bantu languages of Africa. In Zulu language of South Africa the word symbolises being human. This meaning is also expressed in other languages. In Shona, a Zimbabwe language, the word unhu means the same thing (Samkange and Samkange, 1980). The same meaning is expressed by ubuthosi in Ndebele, another Zimbabwe language. In Botswana, the word botho expresses the same meaning whilst in Tanzania it is bumuntu. Congo, Angola, Malawi, Mozambigue and Uganda use the words bomoto, gimuntu, umunthu, vumuntu and umuntu respectively. Of all these words, and many others not mentioned here, the word ubuntu has gained popularity mainly because it has been popularised in South Africa where a simple google search will show that ubuntu is attached to a lot of things: ubuntu schools, ubuntu conferences, ubuntu names, ubuntu loans, ubuntu child care, ubuntu awards, ubuntu counselling services and many others.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the word deeply denotes generally acceptable ideas and deeds in society although in South Africa the emphasis seems to be on collectivity as in shosholoza. The same emphasis of ubuntu is reflected in the Ndebele language in Zimbabwe. The Ndebele language borrows from Zulu language. In Ndebele, words like sisonke express collectivity, being together. In the Shona language of Zimbabwe and related dialects, the word unhu connotes being human or humaneness. It focuses so much on acceptable human behaviour. Hapana nezvemunhu (there is no person in you) in Shona does not mean there is no physical human being, it means that this physical human being is only available in flesh but their behaviour does not make them a human being. Uri mhuka yemunhu (you are an animal of a person) reflects a person without unhu. Animals are biological, but they do not have the deeds of unhu. In other uses in Shona, the word still reflects the Zulu meaning of ubuntu. Sayings like munhu munhu nevanhu reflects collectivity. Kali kokha nkanyama, tili awiri ntiwanthu, is a Chewa phrase in Malawi which means ‘one person is like an animal, two are a community). The proverbial tone mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe, ukachenjera manja udya naye meaning ‘your neighbor’s child is your own’ represents the togetherness element of ubuntu.

Ubuntu – A Beacon for Humanity

As we venture deeper into the 21st century, faced with global challenges that underscore our interconnectedness, Ubuntu offers a way forward. It reminds us that our survival and success hinge not on individual prowess, but on our ability to function as a community, to empathize with each other, and to uphold our shared humanity.

In a world often marred by division and strife, Ubuntu shines as a beacon of hope. It’s more than a cultural concept, it’s a blueprint for collective existence, an anthem of shared humanity, and the pulsating heartbeat of African society.

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