Learning About Ubuntu in Namibia

My African friends think that Yukoners are cannibals. When I told them the story about the Sourtoe Cocktail I expected the usual reaction: laughter and amusement.

But instead I got wide-open eyes and mouths asking me: “You did this?” they asked me. “You drank this human-cocktail?”

I did my best to explain the history behind this tradition and made clear that people are not swallowing the toe, just the alcohol. But somehow this tradition sounded very strange to them.

I mean, there are some weird customs in Namibia as well. Here people like to eat goat-head (which is known as “Smiley,” because the goat still has all its teeth on it and looks as if it’s smiling) and worms, which I tried, too.

Namibia was once a German colony and some places look more German than in Germany. But still, this is Africa, with its own values and views on things – often different than in the western world.

One thing I learned was a term called ubuntu. It’s not a tradition, it’s more a way of life. The word ubuntu has its origin in Bantu languages, which is a language-group and contains 500 languages, including Zulu and Swahili.

My friends translated it for me. They said ubuntu means: “I am what I am because of you,” they told me, while I shared a cigarette with them.

If a stranger comes to a village, he gets hospitality and food and doesn’t need to ask; that’s ubuntu. But that’s only one aspect of it. Ubuntu also stands for community, oneness and caring for each other, my friends explained. They impressed me with their talk about ubuntu; something we all long for.

Back in Germany, I did some research and asked other Namibian friends about ubuntu and what it means to them.

“We just learned about it in school,” some told me. “It doesn’t come from Namibia, it comes from South Africa and Nelson Mandela made it popular by talking about it.”

Indeed, Nelson Mandela shared ubuntu and his various aspects with the world. But I felt disappointed – I thought everybody is just as fascinated by this term as I am. But maybe this is just some myth that people tell Europeans to make them feel good and share their cigarette with. I thought to myself.

The term ubuntu might come from another corner of Africa, but there is a spirit of sharing in Namibia; people give freely and from their heart.

I experienced the spirit of ubuntu when a strange lady invited me for lunch on a Sunday. It was my second week in Namibia, I was on assignment in Swakopmund, a small town by the Atlantic, to report about a music festival. I felt strange in Namibia. Everything was new and even though Swakopmund is a town with lots of Namibian-Germans living there, I felt like I’d just arrived on another planet.

I met her at a concert and she just invited me to have lunch with her family. After lunch, she gave me a sightseeing tour and we drove into the Namib Desert (which is close to Swakopmund) where we climbed Dune 7, which is a very high and large dune.

It was my first time in the Namib Desert and I will never forget it: the warm sand beneath my bare feet, the wind, the stillness. It was beautiful.

After we descended from Dune 7, my new friend showed me another Namibian custom: Sundowner. In the evening people gather to have a drink and watch the sun go down; which is spectacular in Namibia.  

It was a perfect day and because of my new friend, I didn’t feel alien anymore.

Ubuntu may not be the term they are using in Namibia on a daily basis, but it is practice that matters.

So, maybe the Sourtoe Cocktail is kind of ubuntu, too? At least, people share one toe.

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