Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace prize and until recently the Archbishop of Cape Town, writes and talks often about the concept of ubuntu. Traditional African culture, with its emphasis on rites of passage, different
generations living together and respect for one’s ancestors, is based on the principle that one cannot be human alone. We need other people to be fully alive.
The African proverb,“It takes a village to raise
a child,” counsels that we are at our best if the whole community contributes to our upbringing. We are individuals (umuntu) but we exist in a social context (ubuntu.) Compared to Rene Descartes’ dictum, “I think therefore
I am,” which is the foundation of much modern Western culture, ubuntu is variously translated as “I am because you are,” or “I exist to the extent that others acknowledge and respect me.” We exist by the grace of the
community to which we belong and the degree to which we take responsibility for other members of the populace. The essence of humanity is the talent to live in constructive peace with our fellow human beings.
took me almost my entire life to understand the greater meaning of the traditional morning greeting in Zimbabwe. It began :
“Mangwanani. Marara sei?” (“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”)
“Ndarara, kana mararawo.” (“I slept well if you slept well.”)
What happened to these traditional values in which compassion is key? Clearly they are not obvious in
modern day Africa. We examine in great detail the impact of slavery on America yet seldom ask what the effect was on Africa. What happens when a continent is emasculated, when the strongest, healthiest, most fertile of the young generation are forcefully
removed, and human life is measured in terms of beads, cloth, liquor and guns? (Incidentally, polygamy was quite possibly the compassionate response of a population in which women vastly outnumbered men, and it was regarded as a disgrace for a woman
to be unmarried and without children.) What was it like to exist for centuries in chaos, fear and hiding, to live in suspicion of one’s neighbors who were pressured or bribed into capturing slaves, to be preoccupied with survival? Lets put aside for
a minute the facts that there was a slave trade on the east coast of Africa fueled by Arabs that started earlier than and ended later than the trans-Atlantic passage, that none of the profits of the slave trade were returned to Africa, and that the English
language itself (white symbolizing purity, saintliness and chastity; black symbolizing darkness, evil and villainy) enforced racial prejudice. Rather, more importantly the ideas of the Enlightenment passed Africa by and the continent eventually emerged
into the light severely handicapped, just in time for colonial occupation.
As Archbishop Tutu famously observed, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.'
We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
What has this to do with honey bees? To paraphrase the first two paragraphs above, a honey bee cannot live alone; she needs other
bees to be fully alive. Honey bees exist by the grace of the colony to which they belong and the degree to which they take responsibility for other members of their colony.
Ubuntu equates with the concept of
a superorganism, a term devised by William Wheeler in 1911 to describe a colony as an indivisible whole, a single living organism. Jurgen Tautz, in the opening chapter of The Buzz About Bees, describes honey bees as ‘honorary
mammals’ : both bees and mammals have a low rate of reproduction, both produce nutrition for the young (milk and royal jelly,) the uterus of the mammal compares with brood comb, they have similar body temperatures and both have a high capacity for learning.
And each new organism has its own genetic makeup.
In a comparative table published in the American Bee Journal in November, 2015, Keith Delaplane compares the mammal organism with the honey bee superorganism. Besides a common
facility for group decision-making, mammary glands can be compared with nurse bee hypopharyngeal glands, mammalian ovaries with the queen, mammalian testes with the queen, and mammalian wound-healing with killing and propolizing of colony invaders.
Clearly the tissues and organs do not look the same, but their functions have the corresponding purpose.
In this time of social and national acrimony, rancor, division and hostility, we might look
for inspiration to traditional societies that interacted synergistically in a way similar to honey bees and ants, the latter two species having survived much longer and, arguably, more successfully than has humankind. The trappings of modern civilization may
not look the same as those of traditional societies, but the essential purpose of our existence individually and collectively, remains the same.
“The great powers have done wonders in giving the world an
industrial and military look,” wrote Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa who was killed by the Apartheid regime in 1977, “but the great gift still has to come from Africa - giving the world a more human