Ubuntu comes from a proverb found in languages throughout Africa that translates as “a person is a person through other persons,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains in the foreword. In practice, “ubuntu can help us to be someone in the world who builds bridges, someone who sees each interaction as a chance to foster a more positive environment.” Tutu, who is Ngomane’s grandfather, describes ubuntu as “one of Africa’s greatest gifts to the world.”
And as Ngomane breaks down the concept into 14 easy-to-digest lessons, some do seem tailor-made for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
For instance, Chapter 1, “See Yourself in Other People,” offers a rebuke to influencer consumer culture and the idea that a handful of individuals are somehow superior to the rest of us. If Meghan decides to restart her lifestyle blog, the Tig, perhaps she’ll adopt Ngomane’s ubuntu messaging: “We don’t need to compare our lives to others’ and what they may or may not have in them.”
Chapter 2, “Strength Lies in Unity,” devotes a section to why wealth doesn’t equate to worth, which bolsters the couple’s plan to seek financial independence. The most valuable assets you can have are real connections with other people, Ngomane writes, noting that in the era of social media, loneliness has skyrocketed. Her suggestions for how to find your own community, including joining parent groups and volunteering for charities, certainly seem applicable to a young family about to split their time between Britain and Canada.
Ngomane’s advice is most powerful when referencing the history of ubuntu in South Africa, where the principle guided the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work after the end of apartheid. She writes that her grandfather “thought that if people were to become ‘one’ again, they needed to share a common history. And you can only do that if you are allowed to experience what the other side has experienced.” So, in the spirit of ubuntu, as people came forward to talk about what they did and why, everyone listened and tried to understand.
The sheer difficulty of this is evident in every wrenching story she shares, such as the case of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar who was stabbed and stoned to death in South Africa in 1993. The four black men convicted in the murder explained that they were on their way home from a political rally and viewed her not as a person but as a symbol of white oppression.
Incredibly, Biehl’s parents were able to forgive these men, just as Nelson Mandela was able to forge a lasting friendship with Christo Brand, who was his prison guard on Robben Island. “Mandela saw him as a human being still, a man who needed a job even if it was one that dehumanized him,” Ngomane writes.
Mandela and Archbishop Tutu serve as examples of ubuntu in many of her anecdotes, as they perform grand, healing gestures. There’s President Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, signaling that he supports South Africa’s team and its Afrikaner players. There’s Tutu, cracking jokes about nose size to help ease the tension at an event in post-genocide Rwanda.
In any other book, Tutu and Mandela might seem to set an unattainably high bar for readers. But ubuntu is all about how every person matters and has the power to effect change. (See also Chapter 13, “Why Little Things Make a Big Difference.”)
The message particularly resonates in an election year in an increasingly divided nation. Although Ngomane never explicitly references American politics, her encouragement to maintain hope — while taking action — can read like a playbook for people frustrated by seemingly intractable partisanship.
Or it could be just as inspiring for the guy who’s sixth in line for the British crown and his former TV actress wife as they navigate their futures. After last week’s summit at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth II released a statement saying that she respects and understands the couple’s interest in a “more independent life.” How very ubuntu.
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer based in Florence.