In a few days time, the renowned voyaging canoe, Hōkūle’a, will be making its first contact with the African continent at Maputo, Mozambique. From there they will make their way down the coast of South Africa, arriving in Cape Town next month. This event carries a great deal of significance on many levels, but perhaps most notable is the fact that this will signify the youngest culture (Polynesians) arriving at the cradle of humanity where the oldest cultures of mankind originated. This reverse-migration story, or, as some people like to say, “returning to the source”, is one that many people in Hawai’i and South Africa have been looking forward to long before this voyage even began.
As I write this, I am getting ready to depart for South Africa to join up with Hōkūle’a and the crew as they sail around the southern tip of the continent. Much of this preparation process follows a similar routine: pack voyaging clothes, prepare camera equipment, charge batteries, swim daily, practice tying knots, etc. There is comfort in these types of routines because through these acts of physical preparation, I am able to begin the more challenging process of mental preparation for a voyage at sea. This internal process ultimately entails letting go of thoughts and worries that exist on land so that I may be fully aware and present at sea. Though every crewmember has a different way of arriving at this state of being, we all tend to get there sooner or later.
The last part of our preparation is the cultural aspect of voyaging. This is where crewmembers learn the cultural context of each port/country and how we, as guests, can be most respectful to the host culture. Simultaneously, we must also be cognizant of our roles as ambassadors of Hawaiian culture and values. From a storyteller’s perspective, this is the most crucial part of my preparation. This brings me to the notion of ubuntu…
In preparing for this leg of the Worldwide Voyage, the concept of ubuntu kept coming up as a foundational element of South African culture. We learned that ubuntu is a Zulu word that serves as a guiding belief for societal values in the country. At its core, this term conveys the notion that an individual’s existence is tied to the existence of the community. It speaks to the oneness of humanity, the strength of communities, and the importance of a collective mindset. Put simply, ubuntu says “I am, because we are.” Any internet search of the term will bring up copious amounts of literature and videos – from visionary men like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to country leaders like President Barack Obama.
And yet, I know that simply reading articles and watching documentaries are not enough to help me understand ubuntu. In fact, I believe that one is not even qualified to speak about ubuntu until one has experienced it firsthand. This is where, as crewmembers aboard Hōkūle’a, we will rely on our own cultural lens of aloha to help guide our learning and engagement with communities in South Africa.
The term aloha has become known around the world as being synonymous with Hawaiian culture, even for people who have never been to Hawai’i. In essence, aloha is a warmth that emanates from one’s soul and felt in the soul of another through shared experiences. Dr. Randie Kamuela Fong of Kamehameha Schools puts it more eloquently in saying:
“Aloha is a Hawaiian expression of affection that acknowledges a relationship. Whether as greeting or farewell, aloha affirms a connection between people–family, friends and newcomers. Acts of aloha show compassion and empathy for all people; they reflect a sincere kindness and generosity that expects nothing material in return. And yet, aloha is clearly reciprocal and the foundation upon which family and all society is built. Love of homeland, devotion to ancestors and the spiritual world, as well as the romantic yearning of the heart are all expressions of aloha.”
Similar to the word ubuntu, you can learn a great deal about aloha through all different forms of media. However, I can tell you from experience that aloha is also not something that can adequately be described with words or images. This is because aloha, like ubuntu, does not live within literature or videos. Rather, it exists within the hearts of the people and communities that perpetuate these cultural beliefs in their everyday lives. So, if you really want to understand what the aloha spirit is all about, you simply have to experience it for yourself.
Along this vein, then, it would be hypocritical of us, as visitors to South Africa, to expect to understand what ubuntu means without fully engaging with the people that embody its essence. Thus, we come to this country to humbly share the spirit of aloha and the stories of our voyage. In return, we are excited to learn and experience the spirit of ubuntu and the many stories of South Africa. Over the course of this next month, I will be sharing the stories of our voyage around the southern tip of Africa while simultaneously looking to find the linkages that exist between these two powerful words that both serve as cultural pillars.
As always, thank you for continuing to follow our voyage and being a part of our collective story. ~Aloha~Crewmembers training in Hawai’i look to the west at the setting sun. Somewhere, over 11,000 miles away, Hōkūle’a crewmembers are looking at the same sun rising over the eastern sky. (Photo by Dan Lin)