A Lesson from Africa - It's Time for Ubuntu!

By Chris Lahr

What’s in a Name?

So what’s in a name? In the summer of 2008 I was in Rwanda sharing a personal story to students at a theological seminary of a time I had been with a youth in India that died and no one knew his name. During Q&A one of the students (a pastor) asked what the big deal was that the boy died without a name. I was a bit taken back by this pastor’s question having just spent that day traveling throughout his countryside learning about the genocide that killed nearly a million people in 100 days in 1994. During the day we had visited a genocide site where 5,000 Tutsi’s had been murdered inside of a church building. Outside of the memorial there was a banner that translated, “If you knew me, you would not have killed me.” Rwanda has two primary tribes called Hutu’s and Tutsis. Long story short, many of them did not get along very well (to say the least). Even though 90% of the population claimed to be Christians, their tribal identity was more important than their Christian one. Therefore, when the genocide happened, many Hutu’s did not have a problem killing “them” (the Tutsi’s, also referred to as “Cockroaches”). Many Hutu Christians even killed Tutsi Christian’s whom attended their same congregations. 

I learned that the sin of Rwanda was the sin of “tribalism.” Tribalism takes place when someone’s tribal identity becomes the most important thing in the world, and those outside of that tribe are not as valuable. Tribalism creates an “us and them” mentality. Even though Hutus and Tutsi’s attended the same congregations, and were often times neighbors, many still believed the lie that “their group” was superior to the other. In the end, they did not really get to know each other beyond these superficial boundaries and the great tragedy occurred.   

“If you knew me, you would not have killed me.” Things would have been different in Rwanda if people had embraced their primary identities in Christ rather than the mythical tribal identity created by colonialist. Emmanuel Katangole in his book, A Future for Africa, describes how the Belgian colonialists created the myth that the Tutsi and Hutu tribes were different races. Not only did they create this myth, but they also stated that the Tutsi’s were really “Caucasians in black skin” therefore they were superior (see pg. 99), thus leading to division and hatred among the tribes.

We were told a story that happened during the genocide of a group of Hutu’s entering a school with the intent to kill. They told the class to divide into two groups: Hutus on the one side and Tutsi’s on the other. Instead, a young “Hutu” girl stood up and told the killers that in this classroom they were neither, Hutu or Tutsi, they were Christians! Needless to say, she was right.  Yet they were all killed. In Christ there is a new “we.” In Christ we should no longer put people into “tribal” categories that isolate them from our community. In Christ, we must take the time and energy to relate to those who are different from ourselves.

I often wonder what would happen if those with wealth and power actually took time to get to know people who were poor? I’m not talking about hugely “successful” millionaire business folks; I’m talking about the “middle-of the road” types that fill the churches throughout the United States? I think the world would be a better place if folks would quit striving to “do better” and get richer, and would rather share their resources and get to know those who are “living without names.” I also suspect that racism will never end until we rid ourselves of the false identities handed down to us stating that white is good and powerful and black and brown are not. As followers of Jesus we must create a new “us and them” which includes those normally seen as living outside of our “tribe.”


While visiting Rwanda and South Africa, I learned the word, Ubuntu. There really isn't a word in the English that defines the word properly. Essentially Ubuntu means humanity and refers to the African value of community.[1] Though Martin Luther King never used the word, he elegantly describes the concept of Ubuntu as he describes the interconnectedness of humanity, “I cannot be all that I need to be unless you are all that you need to be; and you cannot be all that you need to be unless I am all that I need to be.” All people are connected, we all need each other, and we are all beloved sons and daughters of God.

Our guide in Rwanda also noted that when we begin following Jesus, we are called to a higher tribe! In this new tribe there is no room for the "lower tribe." The new tribe includes people from all tribes. Even the language we use becomes different in that there is a new "us" and "them." Desmond Tutu in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness writes, "None is an outsider, all are insiders, all belong. There are no aliens, all belong in the one family, God's family, the human family. There is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free-- instead of separation and division, all distinctions make for a rich diversity to be celebrated for the sake of the unity that underlies them. We are different so that we can know our need of one another, for no one is ultimately self-sufficient.[2]"

Our primary identities are not white, black, conservative, liberal, Protestant or Catholic, national or immigrant; rather our identities are humans created in the image of God. It is along the unexpected path of life that we gain a deeper knowledge of God and a deeper appreciation for those created in God’s image.

[1] Battle, Michael; Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu; The Pilgrim Press; Cleveland, OH; 1997; p.39.

[2] Tutu, p 265.

Chris and Lara Lahr live in Philadelphia, where they raise three daughters. They have been married twenty years, with 17 of them taking place in the city, where they reside. Lara is a community nurse working with babies and mamas in their neighborhood. She is currently going to school to become a midwife. Chris works with a non-profit called Timoteo (www.timoteosports.org). Timoteo is a mentoring program that uses flag football as a means of mentoring urban youth. The Lahr's are strong believers that they are called to be neighbors (instead of missionaries), which calls them to celebrate, struggle, worship, and live life in the neighborhood they serve. Chris is a graduate of Asbury Seminary and Eastern College. Lara is a graduate of Asbury College. 

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