I first learned about the concept of Ubuntu – ” I am because we are” – as a college senior when I took a course on apartheid and then traveled to the Republic of South Africa for a month. I have since been back to the RSA one other time (TA’ing that same course), and have followed much of the contributions that South Africa gives to the world – including the theological legacy of Desmond TuTu who helped introduce the concept of Ubuntu globally. I was reminded of how powerful this African concept of Ubuntu is in my own life recently in a couple of ways – how reassuring it is that my own identity is caught up in, bound to, and encouraged by others.
As part of decorating our new nursery for Baby V, I collected some photos and paintings that we had around the house of children from around the world to hang by our rocker. The art was mostly from countries that one or both of us had visited, including two pictures of young boys that I had taken while on my second trip to South Africa (one in a Cradock school, one in the township of Soweto). I wanted our baby girl to have some fun faces on the wall to focus on as her eyesight developed, and to have some of those faces be children that are so much like her on the inside – but who also live in a whole different world and look a little different on the outside. I now realize that part of why I wanted those photos in the nursery was for me to look at! I am drawn to the faces arranged on the wall every time I go into the room. I start thinking about the children that are depicted there, the two young RSA boys that I briefly met, the Ecuadorian girls who resembled the street beggars that accompanied us on our day in Quito, the Indian boys playing stick ball that Peter met – what are their lives like now? Does everyone see beauty in them like I do? What are their choices like, their nutrition, their safety – who are their mothers? Maybe both I and Baby V can appreciate this global art.
This is part of what has connected me with a truth that I’ve been realizing about becoming a parent – and specifically about becoming a mom. (This is no way is saying that those who aren’t mothers aren’t also deeply part of others or of Ubuntu – but this is my version of “Ubuntu +motherhood,” reflecting my own identity shift right now!) In some ways, amidst all the specialness and particularity of preparing to become a mom to Baby V, I’ve noticed that becoming a mom feels like a universal experience. This pregnancy process links me to all other moms everywhere in a strangely intimate – yet distant – way. My close friend (and super amazing mom), Kate, said she felt like she was “joining a club” when she became a mom; and at one of my recent showers, I was welcomed “into the sisterhood” by the other moms there. This process of housing another human being inside of you, of watching some alien determine your own health and comfort and emotions, and trusting that something as huge as making a person is happening while you eat yogurt and vitamins and sleep on your side, is really quite the trip! It somehow speaks to the universal truth that only mothers bring children into the world, that children then grow up to become people, that some of those people will then become mothers themselves – and this circle of children being born is always the very profound and only way that new life is brought into the world. Crazy.
Somehow this concept of motherhood being a universal linking me to others – “I am a mother in part through all others who have been mothers” – helps me reconcile how I see motherhood. In all honesty, I have never been someone who saw becoming a mother as an assumed or huge part of my identity. Throughout our marriage, my husband and I talked a lot about if we wanted children, what that meant, why people have children, etc. – and came to the conclusion that we did want to nurture children (as part of our call to ministry, actually). We also have talked through several ways of doing that (i.e. adopting, foster care, birthing our own) – and we still discuss all those ways of nurturing children. So when I got pregnant, a little earlier then we had thought I would, I welcomed the prospect of a new life beginning to form inside me, but was also very aware of a degree of ambivalence that I felt. I didn’t have an automatic, “This is what I was meant to do and be,” kind of feeling. I had more of a, “Well, I guess this is happening to me and I am not sure I am ready or capable, plus I’m a little scared about how it will change my whole world, but – bring it on!” I’ve since thought – how fitting that something this huge was not exactly my choice or done according to my plan! How appropriate that I’ve had to learn how to relinquish control throughout pregnancy and let God be the one who creates a brand new human being. How affirming that even though I don’t know this terrain, I’ve been welcomed by others who know something of this path and its awesomeness. How humbling to think about how motherhood in Ecuador or South Africa or the Philipines or France or India – or the US – is at once both linked to this global Ubuntu reality, and very, very different. And how incredible that mothers down the street, in my own church and in my extended family/friendships have all also gone through their own version of this universal/particular, global/personal, life affirming/life changing identity shift and we can share and learn from it with each other. It amazes me – and encourages me – that I now find myself becoming part of a new community whose members span the globe. And it is a reminder that I, on my own, don’t need to know it all or understand it all (for now at least!), because motherhood does bring with it a whole lotta other sistas!
Here is an amazing quote from Tutu about ubuntu from a great friend’s justice/travel blog:
“Ubuntu is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with with yours.
When I dehumanise you, I inexorably dehumanise myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu