Bumuntu

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Muntu, Kintu, and Bumuntu are the three fundamental concepts involved in the definition of a human being in the African context. Bumuntu means the quintessence of personhood, that fundamental authentic mode of being humane. Bumuntu stands for the content of a Muntu, the moral character, the essence of genuine humanity, and the essence of a deeply humane being. This word is widespread in Bantu languages. Ubuntu, for instance, is a linguistic variant of Bumuntu in southern Africa. In other African cultural groups, one finds profound similarities to the Bantu paradigm. In fact, the Akan Tiboa-Aboa paradigm of personhood, the Muntu-Kintu paradigm of the Luba religion or the vision of humanity in Yoruba religion, all point to the existence of a common African vision of personhood.
In the Kiluba language, a human being (man or woman) is referred to as a Muntu (pi. Bantu). Muntu is not an ethnic concept, but rather a generic term for every human being. It is found in closely related variants in other Bantu languages. The word Kintu refers to things and to human beings who have lost their dignity. All over Africa, we find a clear distinction between genuine humans and bad ones. Thus, to the fundamental existential question “What is a human being?” Africans respond: Bumuntu. This notion conveys the fundamental African understanding of genuine personhood or authentic humanity. It is indeed the Bumuntu that defines personal virtue, sacredness, or gentlemanness.
The distinctive characteristic of Bumuntu is the feeling of humanity toward our fellow human beings. As John Mbiti pointed out so eloquendy, a genuine human being does not define her or his humanity merely in the Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum” terms. Rather, he or she focuses on those thoughts of goodness and compassion toward others. Thus, the Bumuntu is defined in terms of hospitality and solidarity: “I am because we are, and because we are therefore I am.” This is well translated in daily greetings. Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, for example, greetings go as follows:
  • Mangwani. Marara set? (“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”)
  • Ndarara, kana mararawo. (“I slept well, if you slept well.”)
  • Maswera set? (“How has your day been?”)
  • Ndaswera, kana maswerawo. (“My day has been good, if your day has been good.”)
Such forms of greetings clearly exemplify the feeling of humanity toward others. Thus, the Bumuntu, as Bishop Desmond Tutu put it, is the feeling that “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours” or that “A person is a person through other persons,” as a proverb has it. The Muntu wa Bumuntu is the Muntu wa Buntu (“a generous person”), one who feels that the joy and pain of others are also her or his own joy and pain, that her or his humanity is humiliated or diminished whenever other people are dehumanized. A person with ubuntu does not feel threatened that others are good or successful. She or he celebrates cooperation over competition. The Bumuntu is then that good character that believes in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It is that ontological authenticity that governs the African quest for well-being and the African celebration of the humanity of other fellow humans. Such solidarity is not a superficial condescendence. It stems from the understanding of the common origin of humanity as defined in African cosmologies. Creation myths indicate that Bumuntu derives from the transcendent origin of human beings. As an Akan proverb has it, “All human beings are children of God, no one is a child of the earth” (Nnipa nyinaa ye Onyame mma, obi nnye asase ba). For the Baluba people, as for the Akan, all human beings, men and women, are Bantu ba Leza (“God's people”) and Bana ba Vidye Mukulu (“Children of the Great Spirit”).
It is in virtue of this transcendent origin that the true nature of human beings consists in good character, which again is the intrinsic attribute of Bumuntu. Thus, in many regions of Africa, people make a distinction between two kinds of human beings: those without Bumuntu, who are regarded as nonhuman, and those with Bumuntu, who are appreciated as genuine human beings. The Baluba maintain that, just like the Yoruba and the Akan, “good character is the essence of religion.”
One of the fundamental characteristics of the African concept of the person is the distinction made between what the Baluba call Muntu wa bine (“the true human being”) and Muntu wa bitupu (“an empty shell” or “nonperson”).
To the question, “What is a human being?” Luba religion responds by establishing first a distinction between two categories, Muntu (“a genuine human being”) and Kintu (“a thing”). According to Luba cosmology, every human being exists as a pendulum between two categories of being, as Table 1 shows.

Table 1: The Two Categories of Being

The MU-NTU The KI-NTU
Category of Good Morality and Intelligence Category of Bad Morality and Stupidity
MUNTU (good, respectable person) KI-NTU (someone who does not deserve respect)
TATA (good father) KI-TATA (bad father)
MAMA (good mother) KI-MAMA (bad mother)
MULUME (good husband) KI-LUME (abusive husband)
MULOPWE (good king) KI-LOPWE (tyrant, stupid king)
As the table clearly shows, a human being can lose her or his humanness and shift to the category of things or the animal state. The Bumuntu is determined by a person's capacity to move from the Ki-ntu to the Mu-ntu state of being. This distinction is not limited to the Bantu-Luba world-view, but is found in many other regions.
Indeed, although it is not possible here to explore the worldview of all ethnic groups, it appears nonetheless rather clear that, from West Africa to South Africa, there is a widespread belief that people of bad character are not truly human. In Nigeria, the Yoruba say: Ki I se eniyan (“He/she is not a person”). In South Africa, we find the expression Ga se Motbo, and the Baluba people of Central Africa say Yao Ke Muntu (“s/he is not human”) or I mufu unanga (“S/he is a dead body walking”). Among the Yoruba, the concept of personhood is expressed through the term Eniyan. The Yoruba make a distinction between Eniyan as “ordinary meaning” of human being and Eniyan as “normative quality” of a genuine human being, exactly as the Baluba distinguish a Muntu (“a person with good character”) from a Kintu (“a thing”).
For the Baluba, as for many other Africans, to be is to be ethical. This implies not only the capacity to distinguish good from evil, but the ability to choose to do good. An unethical person is muntu wa bumvu (“a man of shame”) and Muntu bitubu (“a zero-person”). In the Kiluba language, ethics is conveyed through expressions such as Mwikadilo muyampe (“a good way of being in the world”) or Mwendelo muyampe (“a good way of walking on the road of life”).
The African religious anthropology maintains that a human being can increase or lose her or his humanness. The quality of a human being does not stem from her or his gender nor her or his ancestors, but rather from their personal behavior—hence, the centrality of ethics in African religion. In Africa, to be a human being is a project to be fulfilled by each individual. Being a human being is an ongoing process. Birth alone does not define humanity. One has to “become” a real Muntu. One becomes more fully human through one's “way of life,” by behaving more ethically. This ethic (Mwikadilo) is based on a clear distinction between the notion of Bubi (“evil”) and the notion of Buy a (“goodness, righteousness, purity, moral beauty”). The criterion of distinction is the attitude toward human life. Everything (word, thought, and action) that threatens, destroys, or belittles human life (Burnt) and human dignity (Buleme) is considered evil. Luba religion identifies four main modes of behavior (through thought, speech, eyes, and action), as Table 2 shows.
According to this logic, the violation of human rights occurs in various modes. One can violate the rights of another through evil thought and evil speech. In Africa, the whole conception of witchcraft is based on the belief that Mucima mubi (“evil heart” or “evil thought”) and ludimi lubi (“evil tongue” or “evil speech”) produces death and constitutes a threat to human dignity. On the concrete issue of ethics, Luba religion has a long list of taboos, that is, forbidden behavior that is considered harmful to human dignity or life. For the sake of illustration, Table 3 gives just a few elements of the Luba ethical charter.

Table 2: Luba Four Main Modes of Behavior

BUYA (Goodness) BUBI (Evil)
Mwikadilo Muyampe Mwikadilo Mubi
The Mu-ntu category (good human) The Ki-ntu category (thing)
Mucima muyampe (good heart) Mucima mubi (evil thought)
Ludimi luyampe (good speech) Ludimi lubi (evil speech)
Diso diyampe (good eye) Diso dibi (evil eye)
Bilongwa biyampe (good deeds) Bilongwa bibi (evil actions)

Table 3: Luba Ethical Charter

BUYA (Goodness) BUBI (Evil)
Virtues Vices
Characteristics of Mucima Muyampe (Good Heart) Characteristics of Mucima Mubi (Evil Heart)(Good Heart)
1. LUSA (compassion) MUSHIKWA (hatrate)
2. BUSWE (love) BUTSHI (witchcraft, sorcery, killing)
3. BULEME (dignity, respect, integrity) BWIVI (robbery)
4. BOLOKE (righteousness) BUNZAZANGI (hypocrisy)
5. BUBINE (truth, integrity, honesty) BUBELA (lie)
6. BUNTU (generosity) MWINO (selfishness)
7. KANYE (sensitive heart) BUSEKESE (fornication)
8. BUYUKI/NGENYI (wisdom, intelligence) BULEMBAKANE/BUVILA (stupidity)
9. BUTALALE (peacefulness) BULOBO/BUKALABALE (violence)
10. BUKWASHI (help) NTONDO (discrimination)
11. BUTUNDAILE (hospitality) LWISO/MALAKA (absence of control of one's desire and sentiments)
12. BWANAHABO/BULOHWE (freedom, autodetérmination, being one's own king, nobility) KIBENGO (insolence)
This ethical scheme is not limited to the Baluba. We are here reminded of the Iwa (“character”) in Yoruba religion. Among the Yoruba, the word Iwa means both “existence” and “character.” That is why a true being is a being with good character (Iwa rere) or gentle character (Iwa pele). It is crucial to understand that for the Yoruba, each person is responsible for the growth of her or his moral character as it is stated in the following proverb: Iwa rere Léso eniyan (“Good character, good existence, is the adornment of a human being”). The If a corpus is even more explicit: Owo ara eni, Là afi I tunwa ara enii se (“Each individual must use their own hands to improve on their own character”). This concept of free will and personal responsibility finds an interesting echo in the Luba proverb: Vidye wa kuba buya nobe wa mukwashako (“God gave you beauty and goodness but you must help her/him”), meaning God will not do everything for you. This notion of personal responsibility shows that traditional ethic was not about following customs blindly. It also shows that the notion of God as the foundation of morality does not rule out self-improvement. In its attempt to define personhood, the Yoruba traditional wisdom explicitly states:
  • Where did you see Iwa?
  • Tell me
  • Iwa is the one I am looking for
  • A man may be very, very handsome
  • Handsome as a fish within the water
  • But if he has no character
  • He is no more than a wooden doll…
  • Iwà, iwà is the one I am looking for
  • If you have money,
  • But if you do not have good character,
  • The money belongs to someone else.
  • Iwà, iwà is the one we are searching for.
  • If one has children,
  • But if one lacks good character,
  • The children belong to someone else.
  • Iwà, iwà is the one we are searching for.
  • If one has a house
  • But if one lacks good character,
  • The house belongs to someone else.
  • Iwà, iwà is what we are searching for.
  • If one has clothes,
  • But if one lacks good character,
  • The clothes belong to someone else.
  • Iwà, iwà is what we are looking for.
  • All the good things of life that a man has,
  • If he lacks good character,
  • They belong to someone else.
  • Iwà, iwà is what we are searching for …
  • Each individual must use their own hands
  • To improve on their own character
  • Anger does not produce a good result for any man
  • It is honesty which I have in me,
  • I do not have any wickedness
  • Iwà, làsin
  • Good character is the essence of religion.
A similar vision of ethics is found among the Akan in Ghana. Like the Yoruba, the Akan have a sophisticated ethical system that has been well articulated by Kwame Gyekye, among others. This system is based on three basic concepts: Suban (character), Tiboa (conscience), and Papa-bone, the antithesis (moral goodness vs. evil).
At the center of the Akan conception of person-hood stands the concept of Suban (character), which occupies a pivotal place in Akan moral language and thought. Suban stems from conscience (tiboa). The Akan maintain that every human being possesses a Tiboa, a sense of right and wrong. Talking about somebody who constantly misbehaves, the Akan use the expression ne tiboa awu to mean that the person in question is somebody whose Tiboa is dead. When somebody who has persistendy denied wrong doing finally confesses her or his fault, people say that her or his conscience has judged her or him guilty (ne tiboa abu no fo). But it is mainly the way a person listens to her or his conscience that determines her or his character. Like the Baluba, the Akan make a distinction between two categories of human beings: the person with conscience (Tiboa) and a beast (Aboa), that is, a person without conscience. The Akan notion of owo suban pa refers to a person who “has morals,” and its opposite, the notion of onni suban pa, refers to a person who “has no morals.” As these expressions indicate, the Akan use the word suban (character) to mean “goodness.” The word pa or papa, meaning “good” (in the moral sense), is added to the expression or dropped. This usage means that, for the Akan to have conscience, he or she must be a good person. Bad people are said to be without conscience or without morals. Thus, the expression onni suban (“s/he has no character or morals”) is interchangeably used with onni suban pa (“s/he has no good character”). In Akan anthropology, being itself is determined by the character.
Thus, being a bad person (onipa bone) and having a bad character (suban bone) are considered identical. Similarly, being a good person (onipa pa) and having a good character (suban pa) are considered identical. Here the Akan conception of the nature of human beings joins the Yoruba notion of Iwa, which means both character (in the moral sense) and being (nature). One fundamental characteristic of the Akan notion of character is found in the notion of personal responsibility. Although the Akan, like many other people around the world, wresde painfully with the issue of destiny and fatality, people clearly maintain that character can be changed (suban wotumi sesa no) and that human beings are not born virtuous or vicious, as the proverb puts it so clearly: “One is not born with a bad head, One takes it on the earth” (ti bone wo Fá no fam, wom Fá nnwo). What this proverb highlights is that, among the Akan, like many other African societies, freedom is the engine of morality. No one is evil because she or he is pushed by God or the ancestors or evil spirits, but because one is free to make choices about her or his behavior. It is also because people are free to act as they please that each person can be blamed for wrongdoing. For the Akan as for other Africans, God did not create evil and does not push any one to do evil. But what does the word suban exacdy entail? To understand the content of suban is to grasp the Akan moral code, so to speak. Here, like in many other African religions, the catalogue of good and evil is not limited to 10 commandments. It is much broader. Among things regarded as praiseworthy, we find Mmobrobunu (compassion), Ayamyie (kindness, generosity), Nokwaredi (truthfulness, honesty), Abooye or Adoe (hospitality), Abomeka (dignity), and anuonyam ne obuo ba (that which brings respect). This list can be completed by various attributes of God, such as love, justice, forgiveness, and so on. Evil is distinguished into two categories: bone, which encompasses “ordinary evils” such as theft, adultery, lying, backbiting (kooknsa), and so on; and musuo, or “indelible evil”(ade a woye a wompepa da) viewed with particular abhorrence and revulsion. This type of evil is so disgusting and rare that it is remembered and referred to by people even several years after the death of the doer. These “extraordinary” evils, according to the Akan worldview, are so horrible that they provoke the wrath of supernatural beings and are considered “taboos” (akyi-wade, “abominations”). They include rape, incest, and murder.
It should be noted, however, that the African religious ethic is holistic because it is extended to the animals and the whole cosmos precisely because the first principle of African cosmology is not the concept of Muntu, but rather that of Ntanda (the world). God created first the world, the whole universe, and then humans. God did not create only one village, but ntanda yonso, the whole world, and all its contents. All human beings have but one single source of existence, and not only human beings, but all other creatures. Indeed, as the Mashi expression clarifies, God is Ishe Wabantu n'ebintu (“father of human beings and things”). The natural world is the extension of the human's body and being as the Yoruba orisba tradition makes it clear. This interconnect-edness with nature marks the specificity of the African conception of both God and the human. Indeed, for the Baluba, as for other Africans, religion is cosmotheandric. God's nature, as well as human's nature, includes animals and trees because the whole cosmos is the home of the divinity. It is also the home of human beings—hence, the general solidarity that the Bantu feel with nature. Thus, a genuine human being, a person of Bumuntu, is the one who has a good heart (Mucima Muyampe), the one who extends her or his goodness to all human beings and to animals and the natural world. This Bumuntu, as we pointed out, is manifested in four basic ways: good thought and good heart (mucima muya), good speech (ludimi luya), good actions (bilongwa biya), and good way of looking at people and at the whole world. Such is the art of becoming human as defined by African religion, according to the will of the ancestors and the will of Sbakapanga Vidye Mukulu, the Great spirit and supreme creator. It may be necessary to note that this vision of personhood reflects well the fundamental spiritual and moral values found in ancient Egypt in the Maatic charter (e.g., Chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth to Light).

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Further Reading

  • Gyekye, K. (1995). African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • Jahn, J. (1961). Muntu. New York: Faber & Faber.
  • Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy. London & Nairobi: Heinemann.