Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (Zulu). A person is a person through other people.
One day in 2020 during our coaching curriculum, I was chatting with my coach and colleague Franck: “Benji, do you know about Ubuntu? You have to watch the Netflix documentary about Doc Rivers”. I was intrigued and checked out “The Playbook”’ – and was amazed by Doc Rivers’ authenticity and charisma. And he explained how in 2008, he used an African philosophy of Ubuntu to make the NBA team Boston Celtic win the championship.
He used Ubuntu to make the team care for each other in a new and more meaningful way, which translated to better results on the court.
What is Ubuntu?
To live Ubuntu means that I can only be the best version of myself if you are the best version of yourself. My happiness and well-being do not exist in a vacuum. We are not “great” independently. We only express ourselves as humans in relation to other humans. And If the people around are unwell and unhappy we cannot possibly be accomplished.
To live Ubuntu means to care for others, especially for the less fortunate. It is the realization that we are not islands. You can think of yourself as an individual all you want, but you need air and water. You need earth and food and sun. You need others. Demond Tutu explains it the following way:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
This is strikingly similar to Thich Nhat Hannh’s notion of interbeing rather than being.
“Interbeing is the understanding that nothing exists separately from anything else. We are all interconnected. By taking care of another person, you take care of yourself. By taking care of yourself, you take care of the other person. Happiness and safety are not individual matters. If you suffer, I suffer. If you are not safe, I am not safe. There is no way for me to be truly happy if you are suffering. If you can smile, I can smile too. The understanding of interbeing is very important. It helps us to remove the illusion of loneliness, and transform the anger that comes from the feeling of separation.”
Ubuntu and chess community
This notion of Ubuntu is a valuable guiding star as the size of the chess community is rapidly growing and we need to make it welcoming for everyone. Over the board, your opponent is a critical factor for improvement. Only through challenge can we improve. Find training partners. Analyse positions with people of all abilities. Make your club a friendly place for newcomers.
The Unbuntu Chess team
Verna Cornelia Price has created a workplace framework where people are classified as Adders, Subtractors, Multipliers, and Dividers. What do these mean in a chess team?
They are reliable people and nice to have around. They will follow through on their word and be reliable, show up and play chess with no drama. Great teammates.
Overall these are the people that are ‘not worth the hassle’. They might not be a disaster every time, but they will sulk badly if they lose (even if the team wins) and overall you wonder why you bring them in, and somehow they keep being re-invited because they might have good moments.
The dividers are the toxic people. They bring everyone down by their actions, their words, and their attitude. They will complain about everything, and gossip about coaches or other players. These individuals will make the whole team worse.
The best kind of players: they will make the whole team better through their generosity with time and knowledge, their attitude, and their encouragement. We really look forward to seeing them on a team.
Now, we are not machines and we are not always in one category. We are not perfect and make mistakes. But overall, the guiding principle: am I a divider? If so can I work on some issues I am dealing with? Am I a subtractor? Can I tune my attitude to be an ‘Adder’? And if I am an Adder, can I become a Multiplier?
This awareness of your actions and of the team’s situation is the perfect environment to live Ubuntu. Strive to be a Multiplier. Ask yourself. “When I am on the team, is everyone’s experience a better one?”
Chess in Slums
“What is your purpose in life?” I am not often asked this by people I am meeting for the first time! Tude Onakoya travelled to London for the first time in May 2023 and we had breakfast and got on well straight away. He followed by “My purpose in life is Ubuntu – I am all that I am only if you are all that you can be”. As the director of Chess In Slums, he changes lives. A lightbulb went on – I remembered the Doc Rivers documentary. Of course, he’s living Ubuntu.
Tunde and his team make such a difference in the world and I am so glad to be helping him a tiny bit by doing mental coaching with some of his best chess students. I am painfully aware that life is very short. There’s really not much time and it’s a waste to spend all that time solely on yourself. We need to help and give and share in whichever measure that we are able to.
I won’t stop helping you until you are all you can be.
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