The Shona Ethic of Ukama with Reference to the Immortality of Values

Article excerpt

This article explains that the ethic of Ukama held by the Shona people of Zimbabwe implies an ethical concern for the well-being of future generations because of the primacy it gives to kinship/relatedness and the immortality of values. This article expresses the concern that a genuine existence is one that is based on solidarity with others in human society at present, the past and the future.

Key Words: Ukama ethic; Shona; Zimbabwe; Solidarity with others; Spirit of Ngozi; Alfred North Whitehead; Process thought.


What has become the most frightening reality of our human existence is that we are living in a world that is now extremely interconnected at the same time that the pursuit of self-interest has resulted in rampant pollution of the natural environment without concern for the well-being of those who will exist in the future.

A lack of concern for others and the natural environment presupposes a lack of concern for the well-being of future generations. When I was growing up in a Shona society, we were told that a life lived without concern for others and the well-being of future generations will give rise to Ngozi (an aggrieved spirit).1 In the Shona ethic of Ukama, 2 with its outlook that life is an interconnected whole, the ultimate wellbeing of the individual can hardly be disentangled from the well-being of others. It is through kinship or relatedness that the individual's actions affect others positively or negatively at present as well as in the future. Thus from this pervasiveness of the idea of relatedness came the understanding that human acts that are done with the intention of diminishing the life of another will always give rise to the spirit of Ngozi, both in the present and in the future. The spirit of Ngozi gives rise to an ethic that is mainly based on the realisation that existence holds us together in bonds of inseparable responsibility and accountability towards each other. Attempt at isolating oneself from this existential bondedness is nothing else but an illusion that is primarily aimed at exempting oneself from facing ones responsibilities. The ethic of Ngozi is thought to be closely related to the lack of knowledge of the immortality of values, as mainly a failure to take into account that what one does at present that negatively influences the wellbeing of others will affect those who will exist in the future.

It is submitted that process thought and the Shona ethic of Ukama converge. They each give primacy to immortality of values through the idea of kinship or relatedness. Here the main presumption is that everything that exists is relationally constituted through and with others. The Shona ethic of Ukama puts emphasis on the immortality of values through the solidarity of the past and the present; the immortality of values is embedded in the idea of the kinship or relatedness of all that exists.

Immortality of Values through the Solidarity of the Past and the Present

Common to both the Shona ethic of Ukama and process thought is the centrality they give to kinship in the conceptualisation of reality. Within the Shona ethic of Ukama, there is an ethical concern for the well-being of those who will exist in the future. In Shona and certain other African proverbs, moral advice is given on the basis that human actions should be concerned with the well-being not only of those living in the present but also of those who will live in the future. To give an example, a Sotho proverb says that, Ose ka oa nyella nokeng ho bane tsatsi le leng o (la batla ho nwa metsi teng - do not defecate in the well because tomorrow you will want to come back and drink water from it. What is ethically implied in this proverb is that one should not upset present relationships because the present is a pledge for the future. Also, what is being enjoyed at the present was contributed to by the past.5

The idea of the immortality of values through the solidarity of the past, present and future can also be discerned from a Shona proverb that says, Kwaunobva kanda huyo, kwaunoenda kanda huyo - place a grinding stone where you come from and where you are going. …


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