Community seeks to foster African value of ubuntu in Homer

  • Shawn Zuke (left) and Anita Christie (right) sit on a couch during a planning session for the Homer ubuntu group at Stowaway Coffee on East End Road in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnaki)

Alaska has a reputation for attracting and fostering independent types: dreamers, free-thinkers and do-it-yourself-ers. Homer, the little hamlet where this frontier spirit converges with entrepreneurial artists, combines this creativity with its abundant natural resources; ideals can easily take hold in minds and hearts. Exactly that is happening with Homer Ubuntu: a grassroots community group that has recently formed.

The group is based on the philosophy of “ubuntu,” a creative way to think about using the shared resources of community. Ubuntu is a tricky concept to pin down, having multiple and multifaceted meanings. A word originally from South Africa meaning, roughly, “there is no me without you,” or “I am, because of you,” it means that each of us is inextricably bound up in another. Rooted in communal, collective societies of Africa, the idea means to embody an intense open-heartedness, to see yourself as one part of a collective community.

The group’s first project is to complete community greenhouses, gardens and a root cellar. Brainchild of local Homer residents Shawn Zuke and Anita Christie, Homer Ubuntu began as a small group from the Nomad Shelter yurt village on Bear Creek Drive, and has since expanded to 20 community members. The vision is simple: to implement principles of ubuntu to help the community, exchanging skills and using the collective wisdom in each other — independent people coming together. Members will be able to contribute three hours of work a week in exchange for access to the community profits. Plans are in the works for a music and healing arts festival. Currently in the beginning stages, the group meets weekly for a potluck to discuss project ideas and complete the mission statement based on the philosophy of ubuntu.

The concept of Ubuntu became popularized in the West largely through the writings of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, activists and leaders of the anti-apartheid movement who took the loaded concept and applied its meaning to bring peace and forgiveness to a divided South Africa and who won Nobel Peace Prizes for this work.

“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language,” Tutu wrote in his 1999 book, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” “It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto;’ ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”

The concept became popular in a practical way when Michael Tellinger published “Ubuntu Contributionism.” It seems to ask, if we are all the same, why do some of us have so little? The idea is to shift the focus from money onto the people themselves, unlocking the power of the people’s creativity and skills, and applying them to each other.

From contributionism arises the practical application of “One Small Town”: you make changes on a very small scale, in one small town, where, ideally, each community member chooses whether or not to contribute three hours of their labor a week in exchange for use of the completed community project they helped create. They choose to share their skills, dedicating themselves a few hours a week to offer their skill-set.

In the first small town found on the contributionism model, North Frontenac, Ontario, the mayor implemented a year round greenhouse aquatic food-production facility that provides employment and food for those who contribute. Community volunteers make the choice on whether they want to contribute and sustain the program.

Other cities have had success implementing similar concepts: Seattle has a tool-sharing library, open city garden plots, honor system farmers market stands, and public classes where people can offer their knowledge for a nominal fee.

They are small changes, but ideally they have a ripple effect. From one small project, to one small village, to one small town. It is, in essence, solving local problems on a small scale using the skills of the people. It’s part of an unfolding new power structure, one in which local actors are making decisions that expand outward from their towns and cities. The idea is if people can have a healthy local community, it has a ripple effect outwards towards the global community.

For Christie and Zuke, the reason to start a group like ubuntu in Homer was timing; with the current leaders the time for grassroots was now.

“Nowadays there can be this feeling of hopelessness, a feeling like you have no effect on the world,” Zuke said. “Politics are so divisive that it’s easy to be reactive. I want, instead of coming from a place of reactiveness, to be proactive. With ubuntu, just going to weekly meetings shifted my perception on reality. It made me realize the power of community, in creating a parallel reality which through the power of the people can create change.”

The group is new and is receptive to new ideas, but all center around building a self- sustaining community. To fundraise for the start-up garden, members are making log totes from upcycled DuraLast material that would otherwise go to waste; an elegant solution to a uniquely Alaskan need. In a full loop, they put the profits directly back into the start-up garden. Being mindful of waste, and incorporating sustainability into systems is part of the philosophy of ubuntu.

One aspect is simply community members helping each other out. Another quality of ubuntu is thinking about every member of the community, and how to meet their needs.

“When my mom needed to move, it helped facilitate the spark of the idea,” Zuke said. “We thought, lets do it ubuntu style! With nine people, we moved my mom in three hours. Plus, it was a blast!”

“Homer has a big senior population, almost 50 percent. These are our elders,” Christie said. “A lot of them don’t have a way to get around town. Ubuntu could volunteer three hours a week to give them rides around town, or offer taxi vouchers.”

Homer residents are joining for various reasons: Angie Shrieir, owner of Love Your Guts Cuisine, joined to connect with others who “are looking to thrive not just survive,” she said.

“It seems to be that many of us in Homer feel the desire to have a deeper connection with life and with each other, seeking like-minded, dependable tribes to support one another along this life journey,” Shrieir said. “So many of us are just buzzing through life. I believe we can connect with our tribes to co-create abundant fulfilling lives. Ubuntu seems to be in alignment with that vision.”

By forming locally, members are joining a global network of Ubuntu groups, combining local action with a larger network of resources and contacts. During one meeting in December 2017, from the darkness of the yurt village in Homer, the group connected via webcast with the founder of Peace School, an alternative school in Canada, and interviewed the woman who started it. Ubuntu is even getting into Airbnb. There is the Airbnb ubuntu network that members can join. Utilizing the knowledge of sister cities, ubuntu aims to be global — connecting like minds and exchanging solutions from region to region.

Ideas similar to ubuntu might have played a historical role in farming communities, where everyone pitched in to raise a pole barn, or butcher hogs, or come together to celebrate the harvest. Now, one can still see vestiges at farmers markets where vendors trade broccoli for apple pie, and potato cakes for garlic braids. Community shared agriculture is popular in farming towns.

Now, it’s independence, individuality and self-sufficiency that are seen as enviable cultural values. Yet there might be value in reinstating these community bonds, as Boyd Vardy put it in his TED talk on ubuntu, “to realize from the inside that our own well being is deeply tied to the well being of others.” This could be as simple as deciding to buy produce from local farmers instead of from the grocery store, going out of your way to buy half a hog from a butcher from your community — making local, conscious choices that radiate outwards; local solutions for local problems.

From Sir Francis, who, in 1600s Europe, penned “Utopia,” his book of a vision of a more equal society under the king, and was subsequently beheaded for his radical vision of an egalitarian medieval kingdom, all the way up to the Barefooters of Homer itself, there have always been groups forming on the fringes of the mainstream, proposing alternatives. The reason an ubuntu group might stand out could be its amorphous quality; it free floats through time and different situations, with its multiple meanings and uses. At its heart, it is just simply a way of viewing oneself in relation to others. It can be applied to other people, to animals, to natural resources and even to oneself. Ubuntu has even been suggested as a way to move forward united on climate change.

Thinking of all of the ways everything is bundled together; people, our furry, feathered friends, the rivers and the watersheds alike — if all is inextricably linked, the health of the whole depends on the health of the parts. Incorporating these concepts could have a big effect on decisions made for the future of renewable energy and agriculture. Instead of making long term decisions for short term gain, applying ubuntu, and keeping in mind how it will affect our children and the planet seven generations down the line, could be the way to go. In Homer, this group wants to bring ubuntu home.

Want to learn more? They plan to be in full swing by summer, and are seeking members, insight, project ideas and contributions. To join, they ask that those interested watch the “One Small Town” video online to familiarize. Email or visit the Homer Ubuntu Alaska Facebook Page.

Jennifer Tarnaki is a freelance writer living in Homer.


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