Richard Dowden writes about the loneliness that so many people experience in the West. The fact that more and more people live alone; the fact that even when we are in the same physical space together we often want to preserve a sense of privacy and isolation. He contrasts this with the ‘communalism’ he has found in Africa.
There, whenever I find myself alone, people join me, not necessarily to talk, or out of politeness to a stranger, but to have human company. What is awkward is to leave someone alone. To be alone is abnormal. When I have said I want to be alone people ask if I am ill.
It is hard to be alone in Africa. Everyone has family. A person without relations is nothing. And family in Africa extends far beyond the truncated nuclear family of the Western world. Cousins several times removed are called brother or sister; distant in-laws are aunt or uncle.
Dowden is honest about the negative effects of this communalism (and those who comment on the article are even more negative):
Distant family members can call on you for money. They will turn up unannounced and expect to receive hospitality. You cannot refuse. When rich men die, their fortune is pulled to pieces and squandered by the many people who can claim a gift from the departing relative. And in most families there is a delinquent who has broken the rules or is disliked. They — and their offspring — are excluded or tolerated, but exploited. These days, when labour is becoming more expensive, the traditional practice of taking the child of a poor relative into one’s family to help them has led to exploitation. Where the child is a girl it has even ended in a relationship of slavery and rape.
Communalism can also make societies deeply conservative. Where maintaining the community is the ultimate goal, important but divisive truths cannot be discussed for fear of creating a rift, so decisions are left untaken. And the African family ensures there is no such thing as a self-made man: the classic rootless entrepreneur of 19th-century Europe or America who tears up the rule book and builds a new world.
What interests me most are his more philosophical reflections on what it means to be human:
Descartes wrote: cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. The African would say: cognatus sum ergo sum; I am related, therefore I am. There are two sayings from southern Africa that make the point: “A man is a man because of others” and “Life is when you are together, alone you are an animal”. John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, puts it like this: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” These sayings are easily applicable to all Africa.
In southern Africa, the concept is called ubuntu: you are who you are through others. This does not just mean family or group. Ubuntu extends to all humanity, shared personhood and values. In the past, the worst punishment in many African societies was expulsion. To be excluded was worse than death.
I think the overarching question is this: Is it possible both to belong and to be free?