7 January 2022

Many African people have an innate ability to adapt during times of shortage and hardship and can find gratitude and happiness in the mundane of everyday life. Why is this? With many African countries suffering from lack of infrastructure, extreme poverty and even lack of basic needs like running water and electricity, visitors often comment on the warmth, generosity and big smiles that they are greeted with, even when passing through the poorest of communities on this continent.

There is a fundamental reason for this: African people’s ability to embrace community spirit and understand that we can only be who we are because of other people. This is best described by the word Ubuntu, made popular by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of Southern Africa’s most loved icons and Nobel Prize Winner for his role as a unifying leader during apartheid

There are strong parallels with diversity and inclusion and the principle of Ubuntu.  With diversity and inclusion being key topics in many workplace forums, I would like to propose that this should be a key topic when it comes to not only our workplace but also our personal mental wellbeing.  Ubuntu in the workplace is no different to Ubuntu in our personal lives.  We are who we are because of others.  A company is a collective of its talent.  Very aptly put by a Millennial during a Delloitte study on The Radical Transformation of Diversity and Inclusion The Millennial Influence“Diversity is a variety of cultures and perspectives working together to solve business problems.”

Statistics show us that, during the festive season especially, and most certainly more so during times when people are forced to isolate and work remotely as a result of a pandemic, travel bans and social distancing rules, many people struggle with mental health issues.

Here are a few African tips guaranteed to improve your happiness index during these trying times:

  1. Talk to strangers, you will be surprised how good it makes you feel.

This reminds me of the story of a father who, feeling it crucial that his child realise what a privileged life his family leads, took his young son to a very poor township where people live in shacks, roads are nothing more but dirt tracks and little kids were in the streets with no supervision keeping themselves occupied by playing with objects found on the nearby rubbish heap.   Looking at his son’s unhappy face and realising that this must have upset his young child, he asked him how he felt.  The boy begged his father to take him back so that he could go and play with the kids.  He saw happy, laughing children from the whole community playing together, turning an old tyre into a car that they were rolling down the hill, others were playing rugby in the dirt with an old can….he saw only togetherness, inclusion and joy which was in great contrast to his lonely life as a single child living behind security walls….

  1. Help someone in need (no matter how small the gesture).

I am not talking here about going on a mission to save the children starving in Madagascar, although, please go ahead if you have the time and inclination – they are in dire need of assistance!  But here today – Help an old lady across the road, donate an old pair of shoes to a homeless person, help someone who is looking for directions.  Recently, on a trip to Botswana, (yes the same country where the uneducated believe the dreaded Omicron virus hails from) we asked the concierge at the hotel in Maun to arrange a taxi to take us to a bar where we could watch the South Africa New Zealand rugby game.  Botswana is a soccer country, so this super helpful man first called all his friends in the hotel business to find out if there would be a suitable place for us to watch the game and instruct them on which channel it was aired.  When he realised that we had no Pula (the local currency) to pay the taxi, he promptly gave us the use of his own personal car to drive to and from the bar…. This is unbelievable, a total stranger, trusting two South African tourists who had no idea where they were going with his car…Welcome to Africa. 

  1. Beautify your community environment.

Pick up the trash around your neighbourhood, sweep the pavement, shovel snow for the old guy down the road, plant flowers in a communal park.  You could even plant some beautiful veggies and start a community feeding scheme….once you start, it can become contagious and the feeling of well-being it brings is absolutely priceless.

  1. Share a meal (or two).

Many years ago, on one of my first trips abroad, I sat next to a young Indian man in economy class.  He did not engage much, kept to himself during most of the flight either working or napping.  When our dinner was served (he must have seen how I wolfed down my food), without saying anything, just smiling shyly, he handed me his chocolates.  A small gesture, however, I have never forgotten this. That chocolate came in handy during my 9 hour layover…

In African culture, when you have a wedding, it is not possible to plan ahead of time for the number of guests – the whole neighbourhood turns up!  The African mamas bring their cooking pots and everyone donates what they can towards food and they cook for days…everyone who turns up will get fed.  Can you imagine this amazing community spirit where everyone is invited and the celebrations can go on for days? 

5. This festive season and beyond, remember that we are who we are because of other people and that happiness and wellbeing starts with reaching out to others, with random acts of kindness, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem to you at the time. Start by smiling at a stranger and see what happens….Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.

From Africa with love.

About the Author:

Leonie Pentz

Leonie Pentz, VP Sustainability & Managing Partner AIMS International South Africa

Leonie has 20+ years as a recruitment professional in the Sub Sahara African market and since January 2011 as AIMS International’s Managing Partner based in South Africa. She represents the MEA region on the AIMS International Executive Board since 2016.