The Third MenEngage Global Symposium (November 2020 – June 2021) is named Ubuntu (“I am because you are”). But what does Ubuntu mean in the context of working with men and boys for gender justice, women’s rights, and social justice more broadly? Elsie Odero, of the MenEngage Global Secretariat, spoke to several MenEngage Alliance members and regional network coordinators to unpack the concept of Ubuntu in the context of the symposium and in the work to transform masculinities.
By Elsie Odero
“What does Ubuntu mean to you and your work for gender equality?” That was the question put to members of MenEngage Alliance before the opening of the third global symposium in November 2020. Responding with video messages, members and partners in the MenEngage network shared inspiring interpretations of Ubuntu from all corners of the globe and in a multitude of languages, including Kinyarwanda, Luganda, Yoruba, Arabic, French, Swedish, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The question was an invitation to members to explore how the concept of Ubuntu relates to masculinities and gender justice. With responses flooding in during the run-up to the opening event, the tone was set for this seven-month mobilization for what the organizing committees had dubbed the MenEngage Ubuntu Symposium.
Perspectives on what Ubuntu means
“Ubuntu means the power of our humanity; what empowers me, empowers you; what diminishes me, diminishes you,” says Allister Collins, the MenEngage Alliance member from Grenada and the Caribbean Men’s Action Network (CariMAN) who first suggested Ubuntu as the symposium name. For Ransi Karunarathne from Sri Lanka, Ubuntu means love, empathy, and collective responsibility. The response that met the video campaign was a glimpse into what was being brought into the symposium: a multiplicity of insights and understandings of the concept of Ubuntu, and how it relates to the five overlapping symposium themes of Feminism, Intersectionality, Accountability, Transformation, and Power-With.
One common interpretation of Ubuntu is “I am because we are” or “I am because you are,” which was the phrase chosen as the symposium’s main tagline. While “I am because we are” is a translation of the Xhosa saying, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”—“persons are persons through other persons”— the concept of Ubuntu has historically found expression in multiple African languages and cultural practices. It continues to be used that way, even as its meanings have evolved over time and across post-colonial, neoliberal contexts.
Reflecting on this, Josephine Mukwendi, of MenEngage Africa, says, “As much as our contexts are continually changing, the concept of Ubuntu is still used in ways that hold its core values. Ubuntu is still grounded in ideas such as belonging and leaving no one behind.” Her observation offers a helpful prompt to ask how Ubuntu connects to principles of intersectional feminist thinking and action towards social and structural transformation. To this end, how can these insights inspire and motivate us to work to transform patriarchal masculinities as part of the movement for broader social and systemic change?
Understanding interconnectedness and solidarity through Ubuntu
Among the responses to the question: “What does Ubuntu mean to you and your work for gender equality?”, were those that highlighted Ubuntu as being, at its core, about interconnectedness and solidarity. Speaking at the Youth Leadership plenary at the in-person symposium Opening Event in Kigali, Rwanda, in November 2020, Marie Ange Uwase, of Citizen Voice and Actions (CVA), emphasized interconnectedness as a central idea within the concept of Ubuntu. “At the heart of each definition of Ubuntu is the connectedness that exists or should exist between people,” she said.
When reflecting on the kinds of conversations that the concept of Ubuntu can create space for, Kevin Liverpool of CariMAN and Seamus Franklin of the Men’s Development Network Ireland, also bring up interconnectedness. For Liverpool, “I am because we are’’ calls us to practise both “self-reflection and communal reflection” by asking us to critically consider who the “I” and the “We” are. This self-reflection, tied as it is to communal reflection within the concept of Ubuntu, has the potential to expand conversations that can be had on interconnectedness within our communities.
How do different social and political contexts that create our identities influence how we experience the world and relate to each other? In the context of global masculinities, in what ways are factors that continue to shape masculinities in the context of different regions, histories, sexual orientations, gender expressions (among other concepts), related to each other and to gender justice work? Ubuntu points towards “stepping outside of our experiences to listen to others,” Franklin says. Rus Funk of North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN), adds, “As a white man in the U.S, where we are in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, and globally working as men in the work for gender justice: the idea of solidarity in ‘I am because we are’ is particularly pressing.”
The concept of Ubuntu has the potential to help in our understanding of solidarity. Conversations on interconnectedness, within the concept of Ubuntu, can highlight how different social and political contexts influence how we relate to each other. These explorations of the meaning of Ubuntu have the potential to further clarify power relations. They can help show how the ways in which we experience the world are not influenced by unnamed forces, but rather by how we relate to each other within dynamics of power. Solidarity for transforming these power dynamics, with the lens of Ubuntu, is crystalized through practicing care, accountability, mutual support, and cooperation.
One of the risks of mobilizing around the concept of Ubuntu is its potential for being misinterpreted as an idea that romanticizes community. “I am because we are” can misinterpret Ubuntu as a pursuit of “harmony,” shortcutting the difficult but necessary interrogations of how power differences and injustices weave through our histories and everyday lives. Ubuntu is a call to action to work towards a world where saying “I am because we are” means opening up space for often difficult, necessary conversations in order to better understand each other and the systems we live in and that influence our lives. It asks us to consider how we can be accountable to each other in the process of working towards social and systemic change.
The symposium, which is holding weekly online sessions until June 2021, is inspiring conversations on interconnectedness and solidarity in various ways including sessions exploring the links between systems of oppression and everyday ideas about being a man, between challenging militarism and tackling climate change, between transforming masculinities and collaborating across social justice movements, between the history of the masculinities field and its evolution. Ways in which Ubuntu brings forth interconnectedness between people, planet and issues/problems, emphasize the importance of strengthening and supporting all social justice movements. It shows that the future is collective.
Envisioning next steps for MenEngage Alliance
What is next for the Ubuntu symposium—and its aspirations for supporting feminist goals more broadly? At the time of writing, more than 50 MenEngage Alliance members and partners have volunteered to be on the drafting committee of the Ubuntu Declaration and Call to Action. This agenda for action will build upon the progressive vision laid out at the Second MenEngage Global Symposium in New Delhi in 2014. The Delhi Declaration and Call to Action set a common direction to realize gender justice through transforming patriarchal masculinities and engaging men and boys. The time has come to sharpen and rearticulate our shared vision for the future.
What might the Ubuntu Declaration contain? Speaking to some of the symposium organizers and regional coordinators revealed some inspiring hints at future directions for MenEngage. Sharing priorities for MenEngage Europe,“More inclusivity” is key, Seamus Franklin believes. Josephine Mukwendi adds that the symposium “has changed how we connect, what accessibility looks like, and how we reach more people who want to get more information on the topics of the symposium.” She would like to see strengthened relationships across movements, and greater solidarity with women’s rights organizations.
For Kevin Liverpool, organizing the symposium has increased the capacities of regional representatives of MenEngage on many fronts, and this increased capacity can only result in a stronger, well-coordinated network in the future. Rus Funk has hopes in “systems change, as opposed to individual change.” That represents a shift in thinking he is seeing across MenEngage Alliance in support of a feminist systems change approach being led by women’s rights and LGBTQI+ organizations. This approach moves away from an assumption that an equitable future can be brought about by changing the mindsets of individuals alone, and that institutions, structures and entire systems need to be transformed.
The concept of Ubuntu offers a lens through which to understand ourselves, communities, institutions, structures and values. Reflecting on those Ubuntu core values—solidarity and interconnectedness among them—has the potential to inform not only how we relate to each other, but also the approaches that can strengthen and advance our social justice agendas.
Find out more about the MenEngage Ubuntu Symposium at menengage.org/symposium. Watch past Ubuntu Symposium session recordings, plus video responses to the question “What does Ubuntu mean to you?” at youtu.be/c/menengagealliance. To see the compilation of video responses answering the question “What does Ubuntu mean to you and your work?” go to bit.ly/UbuntuMeans.
Elsie Odero wrote this piece as communications intern at MenEngage Alliance Global Secretariat in 2021. She has an academic background in international comparative studies and public policy, and is a researcher and writer of Black feminist and queer studies. She lives in Eldoret and Nairobi, Kenya.