“I am because we are” – Exploring “Ubuntu” in Global Health Systems

Woman hiking in the forest.

Hannah Litchfield, Department of Health Sciences, MMASc., PhD Candidate 

Growing up in London, Ontario, I was somewhat naïve about my privilege. While I innately knew that growing up “here” meant I was a lucky young girl, I could not recognize that I was living, learning, and growing in a largely insular upper-middle-class “bubble.” Needless to say, I thought  that being “Canadian” meant taking care of every citizen, regardless of their circumstance. I didn’t understand that poverty, racism, homophobia, and a quandary of “isms” were plaguing my neighbours and friends. I considered those “issues” to be outside of my amazing home country of Canada.  

Post-secondary health sciences courses quickly erased this naive view. These alerted me to the reality of our individualistic Westernized nation. While we may hail the coveted “Canadian” nationality, access to the benefits of this nationality are not evenly accessible to all. In accordance with the historical establishment of the country through processes of colonialism informed by and reflecting even more entrenched systems of differentiating human value based on gender, class, and sexuality, Canada remains experienced by many as a site of daily racism, sexism, ageism and manother realities of discrimination. . Canadians have  The country is today a  predominantly individualistic, capitalistic, society with ongoing downplaying of colonialism that informs  dominant constructions of “wellbeing.” As I pursued my studies, I was shocked to learn that my picture-perfect Canada was obscuring these dominant values  under a misleading cloak of collectivism. I began losing my faith in the concept of community, connection, and humanity. I sought opportunity after opportunity to give back to my community and consistently fell short of that “feeling” I so desperately craved. I wanted to “see the light”  that genuine goodness could be found in the connections between people.  

Fast forward to 2021 when I enrolled in Western’s MMASc. Global Health Systems graduate program. In addition to learning about the wicked problems, plagues, and devastating conflicts that continually degrade our global communities, we were introduced to a beautiful new concept – Ubuntu., Ubuntu means “I am because we are” and is a glorious celebration of shared humanity, collectivism, and “one-ness,”hailing from the South African Bantu worldview (Boyi, 2015). It emerged when traditional beliefs clashed with those of the white colonialists. Their construct of the singular “Self” versus the colonized “Other” gave way to a fractured concept of humanity, human belonging, and social connectedness (Boyi, 2015). In short, the colonizer had to “invent” “the African” to justify its violence, and, in doing so, created the separation of individual human identity.  

This concept awoke a part of my soul I found myself transformed by the paradoxical complexity and simultaneous simplicity of Ubuntu as an alternative worldview and dove into its endless possibilities. This remarkable concept embodies traits such as warmth, empathy, connection, understanding, reciprocity, and  implies that human beings are defined by our shared sense of community. As a white descendant of “the colonizer,” the term and its ethics gave me pause and provoked me to truly think about how I identify myself as distinct from any human I had been socialized to encounter as “Others.” Most importantly, it challenged me to think about how I find comfort, connection, wellbeing, and belonging in my community.  

My revelation prompted me to think about my role as a future global health practitioner. As I further learned about the Ubuntu concept, I noticed emotions of shame and guilt emerging in myself. As stated above, for as long as I can remember, labelling myself as “Canadian” served as a tremendous source of pride; however, in preparation for our intersession field school placement in Uganda, I noticed this shifting. I no longer felt proud of the ways in which Canada has engaged in historical relations with African nations. I noticed tremendous shame about my identity as a white person, born and raised in the cultural “bubble” of London, Ontario. While I know there are authentically altruistic components of my insatiable drive to learn about and explore the world, I also now recognized that my interest and expectations of contributing to the betterment of the world connected to colonial helping narratives, and my international mobility stemmed   from a very privileged place. I could see that I know so little about economic relations between Canada and Africa, despite benefitting tremendously from these dynamics over the entirety of my life.Additionally, I could see that my perspectives on African “culture” was rooted in imagery captured and disseminated by white Canadians in charge of the narrative. Overall, I was raised on the idea that, to be a good Canadian, you should “give back” without truly examining what this means on a larger scale. Engaging in hyper-self-reflexive practice, in this case, includes a consideration of the complex socio-historical, imperialistic, and colonial dynamics that have contributed to my understanding of Africa. I could see that, in reality, my orientation to global health work had stemmed from a homogenizing view of what is in fact an extremely diverse Africa, and was further toxic through its too common positioning of aspiring global health practitioners from the Global North as equipped and appropriate providers of “help”. How could I escape the toxicity of this dynamic? Well, I first needed to pop the bubble. 

This brings me to April 2021, when I found myself in Entebbe, Uganda alongside my fellow MMASc. classmates for our intersession field school experience. It was thrilling to explore a new environment after years of physical confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic and opened my eyes, heart, and mind to a new world of possibility. Until this point, Africa as a continent was a foreign, unexplored landscape yet to be defined in my conscious mind. Moreover, Ubuntu was a beautiful folk-tale – something that only existed in the bounds of a classroom lesson-plan. Suddenly, throughout our field visits to Ugandan fishing villages, I had the privilege of witnessing incredible acts of community, kindness, and humanity. Village health team leaders worked tirelessly to perform public health duties in a voluntary role. Traditional healers collaborated with health educators and practitioners to create supportive treatment plans for their patients. Yet, this seemed to emphasize western definitions of and ways of wellness, rather than integrating traditional ways of knowing and practices. This, in my opinion, is a continuance of persistent inequities and historical power dynamics which were apparent between the traditional healers and health practitioners despite the people being at the centre of the work. “I am because we are” rang true in nearly every aspect of healthcare delivery and community membership I observed. 

After my time in Uganda, I have consciously processed what my own definition of humanity is and how this is coloured by my Canadian upbringing and colonial roots. I love the concept of Ubuntu but am somewhat afraid of its immense altruism and collectivist ideals, as they are so foreign to me. How can I marry the values, norms, and definitions of individual success within my home country of Canada with the morality and ideals of Ubuntu? How can I shift my lens in favour of a more humanitarian approach and learn from my African neighbors? I found myself intimidated by how seemingly profoundly selfless, and community oriented this ideal really is, which evokes complex emotions of guilt and shame around the individualist environments and ideals within which I was raised. In Uganda, I was able to bear witness to its application in both urban and rural settings, all the while trying to reconcile the “guilt” associated with my Westernized lifestyle.  

As I emerge from this final MMASc experience in Uganda, I understand Boyi’s comment that, “one is only a human being because of his or her humanity – without it, we [are not] truly human” (Boyi, 2015). My experience of being human is defined by the relationships that I have formed with others . It is amazing to pause and acknowledge just how inextricably connected we are to the people in our surroundings and, on a larger scale, to the people who share in our global community. Going forward, I want to enact Ubuntu in every facet of my life. I know I must continue reflecting, introspecting, and crafting my definition of humanity through daily practice. I need to pause and reflect on how I see myself as “separate” from the “others” in my life and the consequence of this “othering.”  

In the future, when working in Uganda, I know employing the concept of Ubuntu is tremendously important in overcoming the colonized “helping” imperative and, instead, looking at the experience as a shared opportunity for growth and bilateral knowledge translation. As stated by Gharib in his 2017 article, programs that send students into under-resourced countries push the concept of a ‘third world’, where there is ‘need’, and where European young people have the “ability, and right, to meet this need” (Gharib, 2017, p. 218). As I embark on my new PhD journey, I see Ubuntu as integral to developing a holistic view of belonging, wellbeing, social connectedness, and longevity in communities outside my own. I see it as a beautiful, paradoxical, and somewhat confusing “gift” – one that I hope to continuously unwrap over years of intro and extrospection. I now wholeheartedly understand the importance of fostering curiosity and connection and exploring the bounty of literature on belonging, wellbeing, and humanity. Most importantly, I recognize that deconstructing toxic biases perpetuated by a colonially driven culture is essential to my work as a health sciences researcher. 



Boyi, H. (2015, October 2). The Concept of Ubuntu in African Philosophy. [Video]. YouTube.  



Gharib, M. (2017, November 26). Volunteering abroad? read this before you post that Selfie 

NPR. Retrieved February 8, 2022, from  



Photo credit: Andrew Charabin 

Taken in Biwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda