Ubuntu/Botho Leadership: An Ocean that Rejects No River

The Mind & Life Institute Dialogue in Gaborone, Botswana this August brought together African humanitarian and spiritual leaders, scholars and healers into conversation with international neuroscientists about the African worldview of Ubuntu/Botho. Peter Bonanno, writer and learning designer on topics of spirituality and science, attended the Dialogue and shares his thoughts on the value of this worldview for leaders.

“Happiness can only be discovered as a gift of harmony between the whole and each single component. Even science—and you know it better than I do—points to an understanding of reality as a place where every element connects and interacts with everything else.”
—Pope Francis

At this time in history we could use a moment to revisit our vision for humanity. Where are we headed? What’s our aim in of all this political and economic activity on which we’re spending so much effort and emotion?

In the US, where I live, tribalism and us-versus-them thinking is running high. Many of my friends have thrown up their hands in frustration, abandoning hope of even talking to friends and family with different views. A shared vision to solve social and economic and environmental problems feels all the more out of reach. Measures of trust in other people is at an all-time low.1

Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” What kind of thinking and leadership—from all of us—can help us reconnect with each other and build a common future?

A promising wisdom for such root human questions comes, fittingly, from the root of human life in Africa: “Ubuntu,” as it is known in South Africa, or “Botho,” as it is called locally in Botswana.

If the foundation of European thought is Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” Ubuntu/Botho could be translated as “I am because you are,” or “a person is a person through others.” The closest English word might be “interdependence.”

Ubuntu/Botho is the insight that everything we experience is a relationship—to another person, to the natural world, to physiological sensations in our bodies. Every moment is some kind of meeting between a me and a you. Remove every kind of meeting, and our lives would be empty, space-like voids. It would be like we didn’t exist. To have a satisfying life is to be satisfied in how we relate to the things in life. To envision a future is to envision how we will relate to people and places and things.

This is why In leadership, as Desmond Tutu put it, to say someone has Ubuntu/Botho is the highest compliment. It means they have a big mind and a big heart that is closed off to no one and no thing, and so they can work with whatever situation or person presents itself.

At a time when human society feels strained and is transforming, this wisdom is worth another look.


Meeting All of Life: Happiness and Healthy Sadness

A 2014 review of the copious research on happiness found a surprising theme: the life experiences that create lasting happiness are those that expand my sense of “me” as an integrated part of a bigger whole. To name a few factors: “awe” connects us to the bigness of the world around us, “gratitude” enables us to appreciate our relationships, “forgiveness” brings us back into relationship with someone we had previously cut off, “spiritual life” connects us to values and purpose, and the most consistent predictor of lifetime happiness continues to be “healthy social relationships”2.

What about facing difficulty and conflict? Here too, finding oneself as part of the bigger whole can help us find peace and direction. As the peacemaker and medicine-man Mandaza Kandemwa put it, “when we can be an ocean that rejects no river, then we will know peace.”

Being “an ocean that rejects no river” broadens my sense of who I am. If I’ve closed myself off from certain people or feelings I have, my life is that much smaller. If I can meet and work with a new emotion or person—I’ve opened the door to a much bigger world to play in.

Take the experience of seeing others who are in emotional or physical pain. Typically, seeing others in pain activates our own brain’s “empathy for pain” system and recreates a mirror image of that pain in our own bodies.3 When we’re not ready to feel that heartbreak (and often we’re not), we turn away and avoid, suppress, or deny the feeling.

Yet if we allow that feeling to be experienced, if we don’t mentally reject it or lock up around it, something magical happens: the pain shows itself to originate from warm-hearted concern or “compassion” for that person. We feel moved to help. The feeling of compassion is even expressed in different neural activations, now not of pain, but of brain regions associated with interpersonal warmth and prosocial behavior.4 We still feel sad, but empowered to help rather than burdened and fearful. Compassion has therefore been called a kind of “healthy sadness.”

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the wisdom of Ubuntu/Botho was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), one of the most audacious peacemaking efforts of recent times.

The nation’s legal regime of apartheid segregated people by race from 1948 to 1991. When apartheid ended, the country needed to heal: How could the new post-apartheid government restore social harmony between unjustly divided racial groups? How should it treat officials who supported systematic harassment, who dispatched murder squads to the families of protesters?

Instead of dispensing punishment, the TRC emphasized social healing by bringing people back into relationship—by really seeing each other, by listening to each other’s stories.

Victims and perpetrators met each other again, this time to share the full truth of what they had done or the pain they had experienced. As perpetrators faced the families of people they had murdered, pain witnessed turned into compassion: many perpetrators gave full disclosures of the truth and full apologies, recognizing how inhuman the apartheid regime had been. Families felt that the perpetrators and the nation had heard their voices, and could begin to move on with life. Throughout all this transformation, the entire nation was watching and learning.

At the Mind & Life Dialogue, we had the opportunity to hear the direct experience of a psychologist who served on the TRC, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. The stories of what happened are almost hard to believe—there were perpetrators who transformed into advocates for victim’s rights, and families of victims who befriended former apartheid enforcers. The TRC showed the opportunity of a Ubuntu/Botho way of living: when we make space to see each other, to let in the experience of another and be “an ocean that rejects no river,” we can catch sight of each other’s humanity, and find a way to move forward together.


Moving Forward

The approach to change offered by Ubuntu/Botho runs deeper than “me helping you.”

A conference participant shared a quote from an Australian aboriginal woman: “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This is a different way of thinking, as Einstein said, which could get us to new kinds of solutions.

It reminds us that we’ll find more enduring happiness by expanding my sense of who I am with gratitude, awe, and healthy relationships. It reminds us to seek social harmony by first seeing each other.

And it changes how we see troubles in the world: if we feel pain in witnessing something or someone, it is a signal that there is indeed pain somewhere in the relationship (in me, in you, between us) that wants attention. And if we feel loneliness, it’s a signal that our lives and minds have become too small and isolated for us, and long to be bigger again.  If we let in these  emotional signals and relationships, they transform from being problems besetting me, to being useful information about where and how to create harmony together.

These signals have always already been there, though we’ve sometimes misinterpreted or ignored them. Ubuntu/Botho reminds us that we already are an ocean that depends on all rivers. We sometimes forget and cling to a smaller sense of me—but how much more freeing to live as the ocean, to let it all in, and to care?


Watch the full dialogue


  1. Ortiz-Ospina & Max Roser, 2016
  2. Lyubomirsky 2014, Haidt 2006
  3. Decetey & Lamm 2006
  4. Singer 2016

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