Ubuntu Dialogues

Professor Moyo Nontobeko – Ubuntu: Sharing a planet, living well together


At a missionary boarding school around rural Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, 13-year-old Otrude Moyo was punished for speaking her mother tongue of isiNdebele. An example of such shaming was having to remove ubhima (a creeping thorn) from grounds on which missionary horses grazed — with her bare hands in the heat of the day, without water.

“I was programmed to be ashamed of my language,” Moyo writes in her book, Africanity and Ubuntu as Decolonizing Discourse, which was published in February this year. She recalls how, at the same boarding school, only one out of fifteen teachers had the courage to defy the English-only rule. It was a male science teacher who allowed pupils to explain Newton’s law of gravity in their home languages.

“Let me explore the particularities of the example of being Bantu as a thirteen-year-old girl entering high school,” Moyo continues. “The word Bantu, referring to Africans, was a puzzle to me. I remember thinking that the White world had tried so hard to remove itself from shared humanity: U-lu-ntu. White supremacy expressed through colonisation, apartheid, and related systems of oppression had designed separate races, by which Whites had removed themselves from that shared U-lu-ntu. Again, Whites used language to mark Africans in Southern Africa as Bantu, a term denoting ‘the Other’.”

For Moyo, reflecting on Ubuntu remains “enmeshed in the historical experience of Whiteness and the definitional power it held over every aspect of my life.”

Today, Moyo is a Professor and Program Director at the School of Social Work, at the Indiana University — South Bend, where her work centres around “undoing oppressions against those who have been historically othered”. She is particularly passionate about teaching courses in social justice and multiculturalism.

In a webinar, Ubuntu, Human Dignity, and a Decent Society, hosted by Stellenbosch University Museum, as part of the Ubuntu Dialogues Project, Moyo sums up the key question that propels her research: “We share this one planet, how are we going to live well together?”

In a Zoom interview from her South Bend office, she says: “The question about how do I live well with others continues to bug me. It continues to be the passion that makes me get up and go. How do we live well together? I have looked at the philosophical ideas about living well together, specifically at individualism. And have not been satisfied with our foundational philosophies or institutions hinging on individualism. Because it leaves out the treatment of ‘the other’ — someone or something that is not to be included in the family of the planet. So hierarchialising things or human beings, and then creating those that are better.”

For Moyo, “othering” or “hierarchialising” extends both to humans placing themselves at “the apex” of earth’s species, thus exploiting animals and plants; and to humans assuming dominance over other humans.

Moyo explains that in living a life sculpted by white dominance, often driven by values of individualism, for her Ubuntu became a primary counter discourse for expressing her own humanity, and a shared humanity. She points out the Zulu maxim, Izandla ziyagezana, which means one hand washes another, thus thriving in mutual reciprocity.

With humour, she adds an anecdote: “Speaking with my sister [Thuli], I was on the other side of the earth in North America, and she was in South Africa, Johannesburg. She said: ‘I see Ubuntu right in front of my eyes. A traffic light is down, and a person who works on the street has left their job to direct traffic. That is Ubuntu right there!'”

Moyo has close ties to South Africa. Before Covid she would spend up to three months a year in Healdtown and Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape, where research informed large parts of her book. Here, together with the community, she established the Ubuntu Arts and Dialogues in Diversity program aimed at “unlearning apartheid through dialogue, play, song, dance, painting, and poetry readings.”

Reflecting on her career path, Moyo laughs. After high school, she was adamant not to become a teacher — like both her parents were: “I was thinking of studying political science, and my mum said to me: ‘Where have you seen a politician living an honest life?’ And we had a falling out because my mum wanted me to go to teachers training college. I did go, but that only lasted three days.”

Moyo went on to complete a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Zimbabwe. She soon grew frustrated, and in a bold move, applied to do a Masters in Social Work at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in the United States.

“I came from a minority group and ethnicity matters in Zimbabwe,” she says. “Ethnicity and gender and whether you are from a politically ‘big’ family. So as a person who came from none of those things, it meant that you were always sidelined. This is why I left Zimbabwe.”

Now, for nearly two decades while carving her academic career, she has indeed taught undergraduate and graduate students: “So now I am a teacher after all, and my mother laughs, telling me: ‘I knew you!'”

While Moyo says she is still “psychologically rooted in Zimbabwe”, she has grown roots in the United States, too. She has a 28-year-old daughter, who is the assistant director at the Centre for Social Concerns, at Indiana’s Notre Dame University.

Moyo quotes the Dalai Lama’s 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit speech to illustrate the sense of universal responsibility she envisions. At the time, the Dalai Lama said: “I believe that to meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not for [themselves], [their] family or nation, but for the benefit of all [humanity]. Universal responsibility is the real key to human survival.”

The Ubuntu Dialogues Project is a collaboration between Stellenbosch University and Michigan State University, where it is hosted by the African Studies Center. Moyo featured in conversation with Dr Motsamai Molefe from the Centre for Leadership Ethics at Fort Hare University, and who is one of five Ubuntu Dialogues Seminar Exchange Fellows for 2021.

By Biénne Huisman

Read original article here: News – Ubuntu: Sharing a planet, living well together… (sun.ac.za)

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