When Jersey woman Helen Sayers first stumbled upon ‘Ubuntu’, she couldn’t possibly have predicted the far-reaching impact it would create. But it seems likely it’s been weaving an invisible thread throughout her life, prompting her to soul-search for understanding and ultimately unearthing the passion for what she calls “a gift to the world”.
So what exactly is Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too)? Is it a Linux operating system*? An African term? Or a way of life? Actually, it’s all three, but more on the OS connection later…
Ubuntu – a Nguni Bantu word with other tribal language variations – encompasses the human values that lead to a happier existence for us all as individuals as well as for our communities, comprising: sharing, compassion, respect, trust, politeness, etc. and surprise, surprise, it has nothing to do with material wealth.
One of Helen’s role models is someone who epitomised the spirit of Ubuntu, the late Nelson Mandela. At Mandela’s memorial service, US President Obama acknowledged: “There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us … He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”
In exploring this truth within herself, Helen was inspired to write a book about Ubuntu, which she has dedicated to Nelson Mandela. Helen’s book is a training manual for educators and the basis for her many workshops worldwide. Entitled, UBUNTU! The Spirit of Humanity, it has already been translated into several languages.
So how did Helen become an ambassador for Ubuntu? And, as a life-skills trainer, how does the softly-spoken Helen find herself in the position of facilitating workshops internationally as well as locally in the Sultanate of Oman, where she has been based for the past six years?
Moreover, how can we actually live the principles of Ubuntu in a modern world that’s increasingly me, me, me?
Helen admits it isn’t easy to live the values of Ubuntu 100% of the time, confessing: “At moments when I let myself down – for example, instances of unkindness on my part – I say to myself, ‘That’s not Ubuntu!’. Keeping Ubuntu in mind, it becomes a mirror for self-transformation.”
But let’s go back to an early turning point in Helen’s life, to a time when the ‘invisible thread’ presented her with a rather intriguing dilemma.
It was during the ‘90s, while Helen was teaching a science lesson in the UK that she began to reflect upon the responsibilities of educators toward their pupils. It seemed that the focus was increasingly geared toward the achievement of academic success and less toward the development of positive character traits.
Strangely enough, this was demonstrated rather well during an experiment with hot soup! Using different fabrics to insulate beakers of their own soups, the pupils were experimenting with the optimum material for heat retention. When the question arose as to how they might share their hot soup with a neighbour in need, some students were baffled as to why they should even care. And Helen asked herself – even if these students achieved ‘A’ grades, would I have succeeded as a teacher if I had not helped them to discover their capacity to care?
Helen knew there was an increasing need for a more integrated approach to education and felt a natural connection with the values-based education system developed by an international team of like-minded teachers, Living Values Education, for which Helen remains a strong supporter to this day.
Over the decades, Helen’s career took her to some rather exotic places and she spent many years teaching in Kenya and Swaziland. She says she was left with an “incurable nostalgia” that kept pulling her back to the African continent. She pondered, was it “the stunning scenery, the unforgettable sunsets, or the incredible wildlife?”
“All of these were part of it, yet there was still something much stronger and deeper,” she clarifies, “something connected with the soul, but it remained a mystery till many years later.”
It was in 2001, at the beginning of her eight-year stint in Geneva, Switzerland, that Helen discovered the answer: Ubuntu. While preparing with colleagues for the UN World Conference against Racism, hosted in Durban, South Africa, Helen met Mxolisi, a friendly young man from Soweto, and a member of the discussion group.
Helen explains: “He suggested we organize a workshop on the theme: Ubuntu – a Force for Living Together and went on to explain the meaning of Ubuntu – an African code of ethics and noble way of living that has held families and communities together and built bridges across nations over centuries.
“What he expressed resonated totally with ‘that thing’ that had touched my heart so deeply during my time in Africa! It was to do with the sense of belonging that I had felt, of being interconnected with others and with the natural world, and it was about the African way of sharing – not only what you have, but also what you are.”
Now living in sunny Oman, Helen is in demand as a training consultant at a large oil and gas company – guiding Omani engineers and designers through their training programmes as well as running her own freelance workshops in life-skills for personal/professional development – including team-building, values education and of course, Ubuntu.
She says she finds it a joy to explore Ubuntu with the locals particularly as there are parallels in the Omani culture. The Sultan of Oman is an example of “Ubuntu leadership values”, she says. “He connects closely with his people with care and affection, earning their love, trust and loyalty”.
She continues: “The way of greeting one another in Oman reminds me very much of the African way – through a series of exchanges enquiring about each other’s well-being, family, work and more … putting each other at ease and generating a bond of friendship.”
Helen was recently interviewed by Omani local radio to answer questions on values education … and so the invisible thread continues. (bit.ly/Q0V79z)
So what does well-travelled Helen miss from the island of Jersey? The closeness of her large extended family, friends and wonderful scenery, plus, she says, the familiarity of a place that is ultimately “home”.
*The world’s most popular free computer operating system shared by over 20 million people and so-named because of its “Ubuntu” nature, explained by the late, great Nelson Mandela in a 2006 video clip made for its launch.