Ubuntu and Humanness
Updated: Jun 6
Interview with Jeanine Ntihirageza
Born in Burundi, Jeanine came to the US as a Fulbright scholar and holds a PhD in linguistics. She is an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and chairs several departments. She also spearheads a Genocide Research Group.
I met her on Zoom for a short interview.
What is philosophy for you?
When I think about philosophy, I think about wisdom. I always go to the meaning of the words – philos is love and sophia is wisdom, the love of wisdom. Elders. Experience with expertise.
I think about people who have gone through life, who have had the chance to make mistakes and to correct them, who have had chances to learn and to become better because they had these chances to learn.
You mentioned the classical definition of philosophy - the love of wisdom.
What is wisdom for you?
Patience. Thoughtfulness. Care for other people. To give room for other people. I find it usually among the elders, because people who have gone through life have been able to learn.
Wisdom is gained through experience not through books.
Is there a difference between knowledge and wisdom?
There is a big difference between knowledge and wisdom – big time. You can have all the knowledge in the world and still be a fool. There’s maturity that comes with wisdom. Carefulness and thoughtfulness. It’s important to be knowledgeable but it’s not all there is.
It also depends on how we define knowledge. In our world, knowledge tends to be presented in books, degrees… and so on. Among indigenous people there are other amazing epistemologies . There are many layers and aspects of knowledge, and we have to acknowledge that. If you are an erudite it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a wise person.
How would you explain this difference between knowledge or erudition, and wisdom?
If you are an erudite and you keep seeing yourself as the center of the world, you cannot achieve wisdom. The wisest people, they attained wisdom because they were able to remove themselves from the center, they were able to see others, pay attention to others. They removed themselves from the center and appreciated what others bring. They also become small, and let the others become big. Those who are erudite, they keep saying “look at me”, and “me, me and me”. You become a fool.
The way you describe philosophy and wisdom is very reminiscent of how the ancients practiced philosophy and the way we teach it also at New Acropolis, but it’s not the usual way people define philosophy. Where do you think you developed this view?
It’s a combination of many things. Growing up in an Ubuntu  system, I’m now getting to appreciate it looking back. Many times you only appreciate something when you put distance from it. The Ubuntu system was amazing, we did many things. I grew up in a village, for example, my neighbor was sick one time, and the planting season was about to finish, my mother woke us early to cultivate their field, they didn’t even know we’re doing it. One family was cooking for them as well. That was the norm. I would get home in the evening, I would fetch water twice because the neighbor didn’t have young children to send, I did it for two families, and it was not coordinated, it was just because we were neighbors and that's what we did, and I was not the only one. That kind of selflessness - they are our people; they are my family. My father was killed when I was 11, and when I went to boarding school, the village would all come, sit outside the house and wait until I got up and got ready, they all would come and give me a coin, as a symbol that “you are our child”. So me having a PhD for example, it is not just my PhD, it’s the PhD of my village. Ubuntu was how you lived.
When I taught in high school, I met other ladies, they introduced me to the Focolare movement . Every month we had a sentence from the bible we put into practice. It was not about memorizing, we lived it.
So, I kind of grew up with those principles, but the main idea for them was building unity with the other persons. Being the first one to love, to sacrifice.
Another element that taught me the importance of valuing others were my colleagues at NEIU. I was so lucky to have colleagues who value each other, it just cemented everything. It became a beautiful space to keep the principles that are important to me.
Would you say that these are principles that guide you in life?
Big time, whether with my students or my family. I can’t imagine living without these principles.
You say you can’t imagine living without these principles. It must have been a big transition from a collective notion of society such as Ubuntu, and a more individualistic society like the US. How did you experience that transition?
It’s interesting how in life we build little spaces that sometimes don’t intersect. Colonization introduced a system of education in Burundi which was different than the indigenous education system. When I was introduced to boarding school, I was instantly introduced to the “me me me” centeredness, to competition. With Eurocentric education as I call it, it was me first, and society second. We became a little Europe inside our own country. It’s sad.
So coming to the US, it wasn’t a complete shock. To be able to function, I competed and did all these things. And at the same time I knew what defined me as a core is appreciating what I get from other people. I also found this Focolare school in the US. My children grew up in that system.
Do you think the Ubuntu philosophy could be beneficial here in the US?
Big time. I’m a genocide survivor, my father was killed in 1972 in Burundi. I was able to form "the Center for Genocide and Human Rights Research in Africa and the Diaspora" . In February we had a conference, and some of the talks were about Ubuntu, and why Ubuntu is needed in the US today. So many problems could be solved if the US could embrace the idea that everyone counts. There is a proverb from Zimbabwe, “if you want to run fast, you run alone, if you want to run far, you run with others”. If you involve other people, you achieve much more. One of the questions that occupy me is how could a system that was so amazingly fruitful could have space for something like genocide. Was it that Ubuntu wasn’t deep enough?
The answer I found so far is that we have a high respect of authority, Ubuntu weakened with what was taught in colonialism, especially the divide and conquer mentality.
Ubuntu is very powerful. There are similar principles among native Americans. When you see the segregation in Chicago… Why is it that we see our children only and not our neighbors’?
One person has millions of dollars, and there are children who can’t afford computers… It’s not magic. It’s all in our hearts. That’s why knowledge is not enough, your heart and head have to be together for us to survive this Earth. We have to have humanity in our hearts. We all need humanity back. Somehow, the human being doesn’t need humanity anymore… It’s very strange.
How would we bring it back?
It starts with the school. School is a respected authority, what you tell a child. "I want you to go read with your family". Did you try to apply it? Show me what you did to apply it?
If every school would apply the Ubuntu principles, where the primary focus would be the other, asking questions like "What did you do for the other person? What did you do for another person?"
It sounds so simple. But we have to treat it simple for it to work. If we complicate things it doesn’t work. Simple things one by one, that’s the way we can achieve humanness.
Playing the devil’s advocate for a second, there are those who will say, human beings are naturally evil, that there’s nothing you can do about it.
I would give you an example. People can be bad, but community can stand for them. A young man in my village, killed his own grandmother. They didn’t put him in jail, they punished him in the community, he had a series of things he had to do, he could not be alone, the adults surrounded him, they set up a healing and forgiveness program. This is how you repent. He eventually became a civil servant. Did he mess up? yes. Did they throw him away? No. They helped him repent.
These genocidiers who go back to their community. It’s because they believe in redemption. If we treat people like animals, they remain animals, and it goes on from generation to generation, but if we fix one person then maybe we fix a generation.
We spoke about wisdom earlier. We can agree that hopefully we all become a little wiser in time. In what way are you wiser today than you were 5-10 years ago?
I’m learning to focus on one step at a time, one person at a time, rather than thinking I can love everyone all the time. It’s really one by one, one step at a time. I’m convinced that’s the route at this time in my life. I’m working with refugees. When I started, I tried to help everyone, the whole family, I tried so much, I was all over the place, but I kept cutting down, so I get to train the trainers. If I train the girls, they will train the family. They will bring it home and give it to their parents. I’m happy that 1-2 go to college, but even if they don’t all go to the direction they are going for, it’s ok. What’s important is that they are moving forward. Being ok with not making big achievements is how I got wiser.
Is there a book that you could say have changed your view of life?
I’m glad you mentioned books, Knowledge doesn’t come necessarily from books, but without books I wouldn’t know where I would be. I wanted to read as much as I could. I I used to hide in the library in high school, and one time I got punished for staying there. Books for me are something that makes me feel there is something to look forward to.
I can’t think of a specific book right now, but yes of a life changing article – René Lemarchand wrote an article  that helped me form a center. After the genocide in Burundi in 1972, we were told not to mourn, not to cry, and you could not say you lost anybody, because if you did, he must have been an “enemy of the nation”, so we couldn’t talk about it. I talked about it as if I was not there.
I was invited to write a paper on the language of violence, and I read this sentence in Lemarchand - “Repenser pour mieux panser” (play of words - to rethink in order to heal). It made me understand that I’m not crazy. I wrote to him, and within seconds he answered with a phone number. He’s been my therapist, my mentor, and so on. He’s been a friend, and it’s been amazing. Now I can say, it’s ok to remember, you don’t have to bottle it inside, bottling it inside doesn’t help.
 Epistomology = theory of knowledge  A Bantu term and philosophy which translated to “humanity” or more expansively to “I am because we are”.  Focolare – a Catholic based movement founded in Italy by Chiara Lubich, promoting unity and diversity in the world.  https://www.neiu.edu/academics/our-centers-and-programs/genocide-and-human-rights-research-africa-and-diaspora-ghrad-center/about  René Lemarchand – Le genocide de 1972 au Burundi; Les silences de l’Histoire (The 1972 Burundi genocide; the silences of history)