Finding Ubuntu and Angels

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2

For the past two months, South Africa has been my constant classroom, with lessons coming from every corner of my new home. Lessons in learning how to enjoy the moment or how to stay simultaneously optimistic and realistic occur frequently. Lessons in proper manners, isizulu, and crossing the street occur daily. But the one lesson I thought I had down before coming to South Africa, the one thing I thought I mastered way back in kindergarten, is thrown back in my face just about every day as my greatest failure.

I really suck at sharing.

Every day, my community, my family, even complete strangers, share more with me than I could ever share with them. Every day I witness something that destroys my preconceived ideas of “welcoming” or “generous” and it knocks me so far back I feel like one of the most selfish people on the planet. Whether it’s through Calvin, chain-smoker, coal-hauling, father of seven who shared his sons’ homemade cakes or Sibusiso who, though busy with his own life, never hesitates to lend a ride or help me find places to work, I keep experiencing lessons in the real definitions of “unselfish”.

Just last week, my church circuit played host to eight new Americans from south eastern Minnesota. I was so excited – my first chance to show someone from the States how at home I am here in Vryheid and the chance to show more people how amazing this country is. That Sunday at worship, our Minnesotans were all introduced, as were I and my visiting friend/co-YAGM, Hannah. Hannah and I were introduced using our zulu names (Zethu and Nomusa). I can’t speak for her (although she’d probably say the same), but I love my Zulu name. Nomusa means “grace” and was given to me by my host father. More people call me Nomusa in a day than they do Rachel. It’s become my identity within my community, a name that Zulu tongues can pronounce and a name that means I belong here. I’m no longer used to receiving holy communion as Rachel – if the pastor (umfundisi in zulu) doesn’t use Nomusa, I feel like I’m taking someone else’s wafer and wine.  So when our Minnesotans, our fresh off the boat Minnesotans, were introduced using their own new Zulu names, I felt a little hurt. Somehow the fact that they were given Zulu names cheapened my own. I didn’t want to share.

But in that moment, I was thrown backwards yet again. This is what my community does – it collects strangers and before their names are known to anyone, makes them family. I was dubbed Nomusa within the first week of moving in with my family. This is my community in action – a force beyond words that dares you to feel anything less than a cherished family member. I’m still really green, still very much a newbie, and feel a little off-kilter that I’ve found such deep community so quickly here. I thought at first that maybe I somehow deserved this community, that the love I’d found was somehow based on who I am, and that to have other people enter the equation would throw off whatever kind of footing I had created. Leave it to South Africa to teach me how wrong I was, neatly wrapped in a language lesson.

Sitting in her dress shop, my very good friend Thembi tried her best to explain the term “ubuntu” to me. Its a term that’s commonly meant to describe the fellowship amongst strangers in Africa, but everyone I’ve met describes it slightly differently. Not unlike many others, Thembi struggled to find the right English words to describe what ubuntu means. I’ve always just assumed the struggle came from a problem with translation, and it might. But I think the struggle to translate ubuntu comes not from it’s meaning, but from it’s scope. The word ubuntu works simply as a concrete symbol, an attempt to name the incredible sense of connectedness, of kinship, found in so many cultures in this part of the world. Thembi tells me it’s as if we’re all distantly related – as if every stranger you meet is family before you even learn their name.

“You don’t need to know somebody to be friends with them.”

When you’re met with such generosity, such welcome, words escape you. Words can’t describe the feeling of community around a church braai (South African for BBQ), words fall short when describing the easy laughter and inside jokes I share with so many here, and words aren’t enough to illustrate the feeling of being called home by the exuberant shouts of my little brothers. So I’ve stopped trying to use words to describe those moments and have tried using just one.


The moment Auntie came home after visiting family in Durban and folded me into her 5’1 frame and held me there like another one of her cherished nieces and nephews, after only knowing each other for two short months. (She totally lets me do the dishes now by the way.)


My little brothers who were so quick to make me older sister – Mazwi, who worries every time I leave the house that I’m not coming back; Maqhawe, who’s quite charm wraps itself around your heart; and Alwande, who struggles to pronounce either of my names (it’s either Lachelle or Omusha), but has a smile that’s only for me.


My older sisters in the Young Adult League who drag me around by the hand and my siblings in the Youth League who are teaching me how to dance.


As I’m constantly thrown these moments of welcome and inclusiveness, I can’t help but wonder if ubuntu is something you can’t explain. Maybe it’s something you can only experience and it’s only in hindsight that we can say, “that is ubuntu”. I’m not sure. But I do know that this community, this family, who continually surprise me with how much they are willing to share, aren’t really granting me any special favors. Sure, as the year goes on, we’ll grow even closer because of who we are individually. But that first surprising shock of warmth and welcome had nothing to do with who I am and everything to do with who was doing the welcoming. Regardless of the stranger, they are welcomed in and encouraged to become family.

If I could, I would add this to the above bible verse – “Allow yourself to be welcomed, for by doing so, some have glimpsed the faces of angles.” I’ve found my angels, but more importantly, they’ve found me.


One thought on “Finding Ubuntu and Angels

  1. As usual, great post Rach. I’m glad to hear you are having such a great experience of community and Ubuntu in Vryheid! Love you, Dad

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