My youngest came home from preschool a few months ago talking about a book his class read. Same, Same, But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw is a wonderful little text that acknowledges our similarities while still appreciating cultural differences. It has become a phrase our family uses often as we notice how South Africa operates in different ways than America but reaches similar ends. Some of these are trivial (square toilet seats or steering wheel placement) and some are significant (inequality and poverty), but it’s nice to have a phrase with which we can point out differences without passing judgment.
A major cultural difference is the philosophy of Ubuntu which consistently catches the goal-oriented American in me off guard. Time in America is synonymous with money and if you take someone’s time, you are stealing from them all the potential value of that time. We fill our days with words like hustle and grind and struggle, trying to get ahead of the next guy. Anything or anyone who slows us down is worthy of our contempt. How many times do we see the people around us as a means to an end rather than a human being with dreams and faults and a life of their own? I’m guilty of this many times over. If I was focused on achieving and you couldn’t help me get somewhere or obtain something, you were an obstacle to be overcome. For many years my wife was an attorney in private practice and her time was literally billable. The threat of her dividing her time being a mother and a lawyer was great enough that the firm built a nursery next to her office. While this benefitted us as parents, it also kept her working long days for their profit.
Championed by both the great Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu feels like a breath of fresh air after the demands of American life. The competitive capitalistic attitudes are considered rude and a social faux pas in place where the expression and valuing of social relationships reigns. How you treat other people is more important than what they can do for you. Ubuntu literally means humanness. More specifically it means that an individual can only be known through others. I am who I am because you are who you are. Ubuntu recognizes that everyone has different skills and strengths; but that people are not isolated, and that only through a mutual affirmation of our humanness can we help each other to reach our fullest potential. Handshakes and genuine concern about how the day is going or how people are feeling takes precedent over outcomes. Time here feels more abundant and if you spend fifteen minutes talking (and listening) to someone about their family, it is not time lost or wasted, but rather invested. Ubuntu. I am because you are. South Africa should export this stuff.
Yesterday we celebrated our oldest son’s sixth birthday. The Menlyn Mall is quickly becoming a favorite hangout spot for our family. In addition to more shopping than anyone could ever want, there is a massive arcade and bowling alley adjacent to the food court. We spent a wonderful afternoon playing video games and cheering each other on to personal best scores
before witnessing another spectacular sunset last night. Yesterday we also set up our first bank accounts and hope to get cell phones later today. I wouldn’t say that we are fully adjusted to the time change yet (the boys slept till 8:30AM), but we are making progress. I hope that once this vacation ends, South Africa and Ubuntu continue to change us for the better. Same, same, but different is right. Be good and keep in touch.