Ubuntu philosophy and Afrocentric wellness practises helped me to feel better
Emmanuel Onapa writes about the power of finding wellness rituals and mindfulness that connect to his identity.
image Graphic Node via Unsplash
words Emmanuel Onapa
It started around Wintertime. I was experiencing stress from juggling a MA in Research Architecture, a writing career, and generally striving for success in my early 20s. I desperately sought a healthy way to find balance. I wanted peace of mind, to silence the endless noise of emails. Putting my phone on DND at the weekend wasn't enough.
Despite the world becoming more and more obsessed with self-care and holistic wellbeing, much of the wellness discourse online lacks cultural relevance for people who sit outside the perimeter of whiteness. Black and minority ethnic groups having the poorest access to mental healthcare, and more negative experiences and outcomes. This has previously left me feeling disenfranchised, ultimately neglecting my wellbeing. I have since learned that finding self-care practices linked to my own heritage, identity, and culture can provide a sanctuary for my cultural pride and fosters resilience (it makes me feel better).
I decided to Jump on FaceTime to check in with my friend (brother) Athian Akec. We ended up stumbling on the topic of cultural healing within the context of Black people’s mental health. I've never seen myself as the type of guy to take up yoga, journaling, getting a therapy pet or anything of the sort; these wellbeing practices have always seemed exclusionary and out of touch with my cultural identity. Athian agreed that many wellbeing practices we are subjected to in the UK are exclusionary for Black people. Then he introduced me to Ubuntu Philosophy – an African philosophy that places emphasis on being self through others.
Though Athian doesn’t use it himself, I learned that Ubuntu is an African philosophy rooted in interconnectedness and shared humanity among people. Rooted in numerous African cultures, particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe, Ubuntu is a way of life enabling social interactions, ethical considerations, and community. Ubuntu's essence promotes empathy, compassion, and a deep understanding that one's wellbeing is not seen in isolation but is interlinked with community – it's taking the “my brothers keeper” reference literally.
As I continued to learn more about Ubuntu philosophy, I started weaving the philosophy into my wellbeing practices. I would practise mindfulness through meditation two to three days a week, incorporating the principles of empathy and shared humanity and interconnectedness that Ubuntu exemplifies. Combining the benefits of mindfulness and meditation with the communal and ethical values of Ubuntu helped me to cultivate a more profound sense of connection to others and the world.
As I got comfortable with meditation, I added interconnecting breathing to my practice. It's a breathing technique connecting the inhale to the exhale without any pauses. This also reinforces the Ubuntu concept of being connected with others. During my meditation, I would remind myself of the Ubuntu concept by thinking "I am" and then exhaling with the idea of "we are."
Emybelle, a member of COCO COLLECTIVE, the first afro diaspora-led community garden growing culturally diverse food and herbs based in Lewisham, also found relief, support, community, and wellbeing connected to her identity, through the community garden. "The COCO COLLECTIVE helps me recentre myself and become more grounded because it's an opportunity for me just to be still," She says. "During the week, you have the hustle and bustle of everyday living, and in COCO COLLECTIVE, you focus on being active outside. It’s three hours away from my phone where I focus on my mental health, and I feed back into myself". With COCO COLLECTIVE actively focusing on mental health through an Afrocentric mindset, Emybelle and others are able to delve on a path which reconnects their identity through culture and tradition.
Being from Uganda, previously part of the British empire and still subject to neocolonialism – I find Ubuntu philosophy helpful as an instrument of tackling the past and current. It advocates for "I am because we are," encouraging a collective consciousness, prioritising specific shared experiences. When merged with mindfulness, Ubuntu becomes a bridge to restorative self-love, offering me and many Black people a safe space to confront past traumas and embrace innate worthiness. Through Ubuntu encouraging compassion and empathy – not just for others but for oneself – Black people, who are sometimes forced to endure discrimination and self-doubt due to systemic racism and barriers, can learn to extend the same empathy and grace they give to their community to themselves. It's become a crucial component of self love and healing for me.
In many African countries, there is also a significance found through the Baobab tree. It symbolises strength and resilience. Often it is referred to as “The tree of life”. For Black people specifically, the Baobab tree can also represent mental health. Just as the roots of the Baobab’s tree run deep into the earth, making it strong; nurturing our mental wellbeing can be rewarding.
Through continued use of Afrocentric methods, we can create a safe space for knowledge sharing within the context of wellness. By being vulnerable, speaking to our loved ones and community about our newfound wellness, other Black people may learn to embrace self-love with firm conviction. By recognising their connection to a more extraordinary tapestry of humanity, those practising Afrocentric practices can reject the coloniser's narrative and embrace their own.
As experiences like mine and Emybelle’s show, Afrocentric practices are not purely a relic of our past; they are healthy sources of renewal that we must continue to nurture for our future. By embracing stories, sound, dance, nature, and heritage, we can embark on a holistic wellbeing journey that connects deeply to our true essence. As we honour where we come from, we become catalysts for progressive change within our lives and our communities while reclaiming our power at the same time. They are entryways to radiant wellness, where every note, breath and step leads to a result of fulfilment due to its connection to our culture, tradition and the motherland at large.
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