Everyday Ubuntu and the need for viable Madaraka ideology

KDF soldiers

KDF soldiers march past the dais at Uhuru Gardens during the Madaraka Day celebrations on June 1. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Wednesday this week, June 1, we celebrated Madaraka Day with all due pomp and circumstance (taadhima), as we have been doing since 1963. Wananchi also listened with rapt attention to the eagerly awaited speeches from our top leaders, especially in view of the imminent national events.

For me, however, as one of those who have lived the event since the first Madaraka Day, my reflections have been revolving around this “madaraka” phenomenon. What exactly is it? Why did Kenyans choose to call that phase of their national evolution “madaraka”? How well have they lived up to their “madaraka” ideals, and how can they improve their performance?

Indeed, it is in my search for an answer to the last question above that I remembered Everyday Ubuntu. This is a book by Nompumelelo Mungi Ngomane, Mungi Ngomane for short. The late immortal (hayati) Desmond Tutu said that this book “will open your eyes, mind and heart to a way of being in the world that will make our world a better and more caring one”.

I will tell you presently more about this book and its relationship to “madaraka”.

First, however, let us share a brief history chat. I have noted that few millennials can tell the difference betwen “madaraka, uhuru and jamhuri”, or their significance. Our history books and teachers tell us that Madaraka, coming on June 1, 1963, was our “internal self-government”. But how does that differ from Uhuru (the event), first marked on December 12, the same year, and how does it relate to Jamhuri, first marked in 1964?

Briefly, madaraka, uhuru and jamhuri were stages in the final phase of our liberation from British colonial rule. The six months of internal self-government or Madaraka, starting on June 1, 1963, were a kind of probation period for the newly elected African leaders, to see if they could “really run the show”. Independence, Uhuru, just over six months later, was the handover of power to Kenyan leadership, although Kenya remained a “British dominion”, with Queen Elizabeth as its Head of State.

The “dominion” phase ended on December 12, 1964, when Kenya became a Republic, Jamhuri, with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta as its first President. Since that date was also the first anniversary of Independence, we have always celebrated the two events, Independence and Republic, together under the Jamhuri banner.

Madaraka, however, has stood out on its own in mid-year as a memorial of Kenyans’ first taste of the freedom to manage their national affairs. Thinking linguistically, however, as we language buffs do, I could not help wondering why our Founding Parents chose to call this experience, and experiment, “Madaraka” in our national language, Kiswahili. You probably know that “madaraka” is the plural of “daraka”, which comes from the verb “diriki”, built on the Arabic root “drk”. That is etymology for you.

Linguistic jokes aside, however, I noted that, whichever way you look at “madaraka”, it suggests responsibility, taking charge. Our original leaders opted for “madaraka” as the term for self-rule to express their vision of their role as a duty and obligation to serve their people. Madaraka, according to them, was not an opportunity to amass wealth or glorify themselves but an assignment to take care of and nurture the nascent nation.

Moreover, “madaraka” is not a one-way process in which we only point our fingers at the leaders. Building the nation is a collective responsibility in which every citizen, in every station of life, is expected to participate to the best of their ability. This, I suppose, is what the “Harambee” call is about, exercising our responsibilities together. It was necessary to emphasise this collective responsibility right from the start of our nationhood because previously we had only existed as a spread of ethnic entities, each operating on its own.

Coming together as a new nation in 1963, we had to find and devise practical ways of operating effectively in this new entity and identity. How well have we performed in this responsibility these nearly threescore years? Have we responsibly served and lived our nationhood, avoiding corruption, nepotism and tribalism?

If there are areas where we have not performed particularly well, it may be because we have failed to find, inculcate and practice a viable ideology or philosophy of life that actualises our “madaraka” (responsibility) concept. In the absence of such a guiding system of belief and thought, we fall victim to irrepressible greed, ethnic chauvinism, personality cults and animalistic violence.

This is where Everyday Ubuntu comes in. Basically, this book by Mungi Ngomane, a young woman who happens to be Desmond Tutu’s granddaughter, proposes practical ways of applying in our own daily lives the best tenets of the respected African philosophy of ubuntu (humaneness).

Though the word is identified in the book as coming from isiXhosa, it is readily recognisable to most of us who speak related languages.

In Kiswahili, it is “utu. The Waganda would call it “buntubulamu”, adding a handle that suggests that humaneness should be a “living” practice (as in Luhyia “mulamu”). In Rwanda, where I first learnt of the philosophy from my teacher, the late Abbé Alexis Kagame, they also call it ubuntu.

In essence, ubuntu proposes that the most important ingredient in any social organisation is the human being. Secondly, the primary value of every human being is in their being human, regardless of their ethnicity, descent or social class. Thirdly and most famously, “I am because you are”, meaning that the true value of any human being lies in their relationship to other human beings. “Mtu ni watu” (a human being is other people).

Mungi Ngomane shows us in her book how we can put these and other tenets of ubuntu into practice in our daily lives, for our own benefit and the benefit of our fellow human beings. I think her suggestions could help us to improve our performance in those areas where we have failed to practice our madaraka.

Have a look at the book, or listen to it, since it is also available as an audiobook.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]

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