“. . . ubuntu is a Nguni word that is used to describe the spirit in African communities who believe that human beings can only find fulfillment through interacting with other people.”
“The belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”
I have recently returned from South Africa where I attended the 6th International Wilderness Guides Gathering, a gathering of people from around the world who do modern day nature-based rites of passage work. The gathering was hosted by South Africans, most of whom who work with young people at risk (www.educo.org.za; http://www.stb.usiko.org).
Germans, Americans and one Brit were in attendance. A contingent of Ukrainians wished to be there, but were unable to come, due to the conflicts going on in their country. The gathering was a rainbow of races, economic backgrounds, ages and genders.
Sitting together in Opening Council on the first day, we each spoke — of who we were, what country we came from and how our hearts felt at that moment. Here was a group of human beings, many of whom I had never met, but yet I DID know them because we all experience regularly the world behind the world, the mysterious dimension of human existence that opens up when people go out on the land with sacred purpose.
These are modern humans who know what it is to be in community . . . not a small task.
On the third day, we began to talk about what might be in the collective energy that was not being spoken . . . what are the shadows that we are sensing in our group?
• The history of sorrow around colonization and apartheid was palpable for me, as black, white and mixed-race South Africans sat together. I felt my own sorrow as a white American over our historic and ongoing decimation of Native American people.
• One of the South African organizations was in the midst of financial crisis and feared for their continued existence. Will their work that is transforming the lives of young people, go on?
• Many who knew the Ukrainians were broken-hearted at the conflict going on in the Ukraine and missed dearly seeing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters at this gathering.
The group recognized the sorrow that so many felt, for so many reasons, and it was decided that perhaps a ritual around grief — a group ritual — was appropriate.
Jeremy from the U.K. (http://regenco.wordpress.com) spoke about grief and tending grief.
Many cultures recognize the beauty and power contained in the energy of grief, and know that when grief is not seen, heard, and allowed to be, it calcifies in the body and turns the heart to stone. Children carry the un-digested grief of their ancestors and can be eaten by the unprocessed sorrow. But when a community is able to TEND grief, rather than try to fix it, hurry it, or brush it aside, the community is bound together and strengthened in a fluid, healthy manner. Ubuntu is possible.
Dare I speak of my grief?
• I slogged through too many years of disorienting sorrow after a divorce.
• My patriarchal line carries some unknown pain that I feel in members of my family.
• A person dear to me holds such a deep sadness over the destruction of a flourishing and intact natural world, that his defended heart has locked out care, let alone love, for humanity.
I don’t think of myself as someone who ‘knows’ grief. But I am coming to realize . . . as humans, we ALL know grief.
As Jeremy spoke, animated, dancing and turning to speak to the whole circle, hands and arms and huge smile awhirl, things started clicking in my head.
Grief just wants to move. Click.
Grief is too big for one to carry alone. Click.
A community can hold any grief. Click.
Grief is not a two-week ordeal, but is something we may carry for a long time — some living energy that morphs and shifts in waves. Click.
It takes warrior courage to feel and express grief. Click.
It is a process that never fully ends because human sorrow is endless, but it can either flow like a healthy river, or sit heavy like cold stone. Click.
When the movement of grief washes through the soul, we are cleansed and deepened. Then there is in us a wider space for gratitude to spring.
Indigenous people throughout time have performed regular community grief rituals. They are critical to personal and community health. Individuals have access to a strong container, like banks of a river, for the grief to MOVE. They lean into the grief that otherwise gets hidden in shadows and feel it and express it, express it, express it. And the community knows what it is to tend the grief, together, as a mother tends a crying child, just being there, witnessing, with love.
After Jeremy spoke, the group stood in a circle. To African drums, we softly sang the chorus of “Tula Mama,” sung during apartheid when sons killed in the struggle were brought home to their mothers.
Individuals who wished to express their grief were invited to the center, and eventually, a few people walked in. Some kneeled and sat. Some sat in silence. Some let tears stream out. Some wept full bodied racking sobs. Some spoke. If anyone grieving needed support, another from the circle would go in and simply put a hand on shoulder or back. People left the center to join the circle and sing, and others came into the center.
I don’t know how long the grieving went on. But eventually, the collective clouds seemed to clear. The energy became softer, lighter, as after a big rain. The singing faded and stopped. It was done.
In the days after, many remarked how the energy field of the gathering had shifted. Some shadows had been brought to light and we all felt the difference. Something in me had changed as well. As of yet I cannot put a finger on it, but it has to do with a stronger, experiential knowing of ubuntu, of my interdependence with other human beings. My grief is your grief, I am the river and I am the banks. I am intertwined with a rainbow of other humans who have shared and moved the energy of grief together one afternoon . . . and somehow, all of creation has been changed.