Introducing the Ubuntu Learning Charter: We hear from Nolita Thina Mvenelo, Program Manager at The Club of Rome

The Learning for Sustainability sessions were hosted as part of the #LearningPlanet Festival, and drew together 200 participants including educators, sustainability practitioners, and social entrepreneurs. The goal of these sessions were to start weaving the colorful threads of a new, co-created narrative of learning for sustainability! New processes of learning for sustainability are emerging everywhere. What can we learn from them? What is that we want to sustain? What to transform?

Hear from Nolita Thina Mvunelo, Program Manager (The Club of Rome), as she introduces the Ubuntu Learning Charter presented during the #LearningPlanet Festival’s Learning for Sustainability event hosted by #LearningPlanet and the Club of Rome.

Each session began with an invitation by Karima Kadaoui (Co-Founder, Tamkeen Community Foundation for Human Development) to explore the meaning of your name and how that meaning ties to sustainability. The speech below starts with an explanation of the meaning of my name. Please take this as an invitation to reflect on the meaning of your own name and what sustainability means to you.   

Good day to you all.

In the spirit of this session, I’ll start with sharing that my name, Nolita, which, according to Babynology.com, means unique light that brings life. To my mother, in her own words, I am her light.  My name links to sustainability to be just that, a light that brings life. In today’s context, this means I arrive in this circle as someone for whom how I relate to others is tied deeply with what I can ignite within them. Someone for whom, life, and the dignity of that life are what’s most important.

The ubuntu learning charter is a living document crafted by The Club of Rome Africa chapter that is an open invitation to all individuals to contribute with the intention to:

1.    Address African challenges from African contexts free from a colonial mindset.

2.    Realise that African wisdom has the potential to reconcile current knowledge with how life works.

3.    Create the conditions for the emergence of many pathways to equitable human well-being within a healthy biosphere.  

The ideas of the ULC are not new. The charter itself recognises that it builds on the Black Consciousness Movement as a strong source of inspiration. When doing a quick search of the word Ubuntu the first couple of results will tell you that it’s a Linux operating system. So please don’t do that, don’t search it on Google. Ubuntu in isiXhosa (my first language) can be elaborated as “umntu ngumntu ngabantu.” This has been broadly translated to “I am because we are”. Although profound, this translation fails to thoroughly articulate the sentiment that a person is a person through others. The former connotes a symbiosis with the community, where the latter expands to a relational understanding. I am who I am through the people around me.

This can be extremely difficult to absorb and even counterintuitive. It is almost entirely contradictory to the western understanding of self. You are who you are. And for many of us, that is a carefully crafted identity that highlights our best features and disguises our worst fears. Our fears about the future, ambitions for success and our mechanisms to protect ourselves from the storms. We work hard, build capital, and have corporatised the work of saving the planet. Many of us are working to change a system we are still working very hard to succeed in. It’s becoming increasingly evident that we won’t be able to protect ourselves from the worst storms. Despite the end of the world, some problems will persist. 2020 was the best example of that. We are stuck.

What do we hope for? Well, that we will save ourselves. The optimists amongst us hope that we will save everything we hold dear. But what is important? Our fears gear us towards the preservation and resilience of the system we have already put much personal stake in. In an emergency, we have shown to preserve ourselves, and our nations before we consider others. But what the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us is that our safety is through others. I am who I am through the people around me. It seems that the pathways to getting unstuck are gesturing towards a reconciliation of our hopes with our fears.

This reconciliation process is complex, and there is still a lot to learn about the systems that govern us. This makes learning and education a key component in this journey.

As proposed by the ubuntu learning charter, learning that is mutual, dynamic, circular, and self-reinforcing leads to new questions that will allow a more creative and inclusive response to challenges. What becomes critical is that we prioritise changing how we learn and being honest in our questions.

Or we risk further minimising ubuntu to a slogan to be co-opted by “well-meaning” individuals who want to quell our fears, knowing that whatever we hope for, we simply do not want enough.

The strategy for change proposed by the ULC contextualises learning around this central conflict to inform our day-to-day decisions. The strategy suggests that one should:

1.    Develop a strong sense of self, academic mastery, a spirit of generosity, a healthy lifestyle and interdependence.

2.    Love and live with success, sound values, a contributive spirit, and deep fulfilment in a constantly changing world.

3.    Unlock the ability to discover and develop vital creativity required capacity for appropriate self-regulation.

4.    Develop skills of collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination, critical thinking and problem solving as vital components of our learning renaissance in the 21st century.

Included in the strategy for change, the last factor would be to show yourself grace. Like learning, fear can be self-reinforcing and exacerbated by conventions, power, and inequality. We will not immediately be free from being stuck in the status quo. All in all, we should be curious, respectful, and brave. In the work that you do, ask yourself:

1.    Will it strengthen my community?

2.    Is it collaborative?

3.    Does it sustain life?

4.    Is it empowering?

5.    Finally, will it grow life?

Click here to access the Ubuntu Learning Charter.

About the author:

Nolita is currently the program manager for the Club of Rome. She is a chemical engineer by training while exploring social enterprise development and youth development as pathways towards equitable human and ecological wellbeing.