Ubuntu: A Truth Universally Acknowledged


Ubuntu (the Cape Town Project) recently found its way to the Citadel Theatre here in Edmonton. The play was originally developed in South Africa in 2005 by a theatre cooperative that included the Citadel’s current artistic director, Daryl Cloran. Ubuntu had an 11-day run in our city and, having the good fortune of winning two tickets courtesy of the Council of Canadians of African and Carribean Heritage, I attended the production along with my mother on the show’s very last day.

Ubuntu ticket won!

In South Africa, a recurring dream implores Jabba to seek the help of a sangoma, a spiritual healer, who tells him to find his father, Philani, in Canada. Through flashbacks we learn details of Philani’s life – his work, his friend and mentor Michael, his relationship with bird-loving introvert, Sarah, and his very dark personal struggles. In current time, Jabba finds himself at the University of Toronto where he has fateful encounters with the individuals that literally hold the key to his father’s past. Jabba then discovers the source of his dreams and the heartbreaking, and surprising, truth he never could have imagined.

Ubuntu is about interconnectedness and can best be translated as “a person is a person through other persons” or “I am because you are.” I would come to learn that Ubuntu, as an ideology and philosophy, has already been a large part of my family’s story and Ubuntu, the play, would speak to me and my mother more than we could have predicted.

I had read that some parts of Ubuntu were going to be entirely in Xhosi. I would be lying if I said I was not slightly apprehensive whether or not my mother was going to be able to follow the unfamiliar tongue. My worries were put to rest early on when we first meet the sangoma. My mother turned to me and whispered “albularyo” which is the Tagalog (Filipino) term for a ‘folk healer.’ I supposed that the scene was all too familiar to her. In the Philippines, traditional medicine still commands a devout following. My mother may have migrated to Canada more than 40 years ago but to this day (and even after having worked in health care for over three decades), she still swears by many cures not found in any Western medicine cabinet.

As the play went on, I realized that my mother might have seen herself in Ubuntu’s father and son. She was Jabba, who never knew his father; my grandmother left my grandfather, my mom and my mom’s younger sister in tow. She was also Philani, who came to Canada to better himself and who sent money to family back home; my mother did the same even while she struggled in a foreign land. A major turning point in Ubuntu was when Philani was told by his otherwise supportive friend Michael to keep a lid on his beliefs. He was not to discuss his reliance on traditional South African healing and the guidance of his dead ancestors on account of these being “primitive” and “laughable.” This rightfully offends Philani and causes him to spiral into his own head and away from his loved ones.

I imagine that upon their arrival in 1970s Alberta, my mother and father (and countless other immigrants before and after them) were faced with a set of similar reactions and, maybe, experienced similar forms of retreat. After the play I posted this excerpt on social media: “Having a family that is born from many different cultures and that came from various parts of the world…one line from (Ubuntu)…will stay with me forever: ‘You belong to a lot of people, don’t make that a bad thing.’”

My husband and I have two children that most certainly “belong to a lot of people.” Our respective families are rooted in the Philippines, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Venezuela. One day our children may find themselves conflicted about their identities or their place in the world given their mixed cultures. As our parents did for us, we will guide them in finding the right balance between the obligations to their ancestry and the responsibilities of their citizenship.

In the final scenes of the play, it becomes clear to the characters that, despite all the chaos and confusion, Ubuntu is the blessing that drew each of them to one another. For our children, and children like them, my hope is that they, too, fully realize the awesomeness of “belonging to a lot of people”; that they consider it a blessing to be interconnected to so many other parts and people of the world; and that one day they may see themselves as the very essence of Ubuntu.

Submitted by: Jeanette Dotimas, Parent & CCACH Supporter

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