the story of ubuntu army
Ubuntu is an Nguni Bantu term meaning humanity. It is often translated as I am because we are, or in a more philosophical sense, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.
Ubuntu Army is a collection of ordinary, everyday, garden variety people from around the world, who offer their skills, resources and time to assist the most vulnerable members of our society, and help them to reclaim their dignity and independence. In the process, division is destroyed, and the foundations for true democracy are laid.
As Covid approached in early 2020, I decided to escape the lockdowns of metropolitan Durban, and head to the mountains, with my sons, for a few months. I prepared for the trip, and on the morning of our planned departure, I woke up with an incredibly strong sense that I needed to stay in Durban. I needed to fight. It felt like war approaching. I told my sons that we were going to stay in Durban and two hours later, I had joined an online group of international designers working to develop an opensource, low-cost, ventilator for the third world. Later that afternoon, I was asked by my mother to help a small church deliver food to an orphanage in an incredibly poor informal settlement on the outskirts of Durban. As it turned out all the regular drivers were afraid of this mysterious Covid that had reached our shores and refused to leave their homes. I stepped in and began delivering the food waste from local supermarkets to the orphanage. Three years later, Ubuntu Army delivers food and supplies to many orphanages, especially during times of crisis.
As the lockdowns intensified, I realised that hunger was becoming a massive problem for the members of the foreign national, hand-to-mouth informal sector that operated around Durban. All their businesses were forcibly closed under very strict national lockdown laws. Within a few weeks, with the financial help of members of our growing social media network, and with a few fabricated travel permits, our newly named Ubuntu Armytook to the streets. We established a command centre in St. Peter’s, a Catholic church in Point Road, a notorious road in the underbelly of the port and harbour complex in Durban. St Peter’s served as an Ubuntu Army food storage warehouse and distribution centre for the next seven months as we supported around 30000 foreign nationals from around Africa, with food, toiletries, and immigration advice. These families had been forced to flee their own countries due to genocide, famine, political instability, and poverty, and had become legitimate and documented members of our community. And yet they were not recognised or supported by the South African government when the lockdowns were enforced. They were also not allowed to leave the country due to lockdown laws, and once more, became refugees in their new country. During these seven months we were harassed by the police and politicians for successfully supporting foreign nationals, due to the institutionalised incompetence and xenophobia that pervades South African bureaucracy. We never took a step backwards and successfully shepherded over 4000 families to safety.
It was in Point Road, working with Africans from Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria and Congo, that Ubuntu Army’s reputation as a compassionate, no-nonsense, hands-on organisation was established. From there, Ubuntu Army exploded. As our membership grew, so too did our reach and capacity. We were an army of ordinary people, spread around South Africa, doing the work that was previously the reserve of Non-Profit Corporations. We offered direct, in person support to the vulnerable, and we could reach most communities in the country through our expanding membership. We also found that offshore members began supporting their own vulnerable communities, in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Poland, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom. The spirit of Ubuntu was spreading. I knew that we had uncovered a gem.
As we grew, we established two incredibly important initiatives that remain the backbone of our vision for the future. First, we established the Ubuntu Link Facebook page, which now represents 7000 vulnerable families from around South Africa. Ordinary people from around the world were invited to connect with the family representative on the page, and from there to offer their support to the family in need. Tens of thousands were fed remotely by this page. And. We found that real connection between those involved in the transaction is forged during the sharing of food vouchers, that the support does not move in one direction only, but is reciprocal, and permeates the emotional and spiritual realms, and that many Ubuntu Links have developed into micro-communities online, and in person, that remain strong and intact. Compassion builds community. And real friendship. Second, we planted over 200 micro-farms in downtown slums, informal settlements, and men’s hostels. We chose impossible locations to test out farms, and our logic. Each farm planted could grow approximately 100 curated plants, which was enough to support a family. The farms were designed to provide food in a hostile, cramped and resource poor environment, during a time of lockdown-induced food scarcity. The Ubuntu Farms were a success, a learning curve, and have now become a refined and sophisticated tool of hope.
The beauty of Ubuntu Army is that the work is done by large numbers of ordinary people, and I truly believe, that this creates the most powerful antidote to poverty and suffering possible. Connection. After three years on the frontline of poverty in South Africa, the greatest weapon at our disposal in fighting poverty is connection. Poverty is not a lack of resource, it is a lack of connection, a lack of community. With community we can solve the issues of food, water and shelter, but without it, we only have anonymous charity and politics left, and neither solve anything. Towards the end of 2022, I was sent an article, published in the New York Times, that reported that a group of social scientists from around the world, had conducted a yearlong study into poverty. Their conclusion was that the greatest weapon needed to successfully fight poverty, was connection. Not donation or growth in the non-profit sector, but good old-fashioned connection. Connection builds community, and community destroys poverty, as the poverty will eventually be overwhelmed by the sheer number of connections that are created. Simple really.
Ubuntu Army has been walking this path for three years, and we are experienced in matters of connection. It is everything. It has repeatedly proven to be the difference between life and death. It has been, and remains, our job to facilitate connection, to encourage, lead, educate and convert those not yet involved in practicing Ubuntu, to encourage those who have not yet created an Ubuntu Link, to step forward and to serve. A difficult, but essential task, a task that I believe we are beginning to master. Creating an Ubuntu Link with a vulnerable family is the single most important act of kindness, of compassion, we can take in our lifetimes to address the poverty, inequality and division that haunt our society. #ubuntulink needs to become a universal symbol of hope, a universal mechanism of change. That is one of our jobs. Without connection, without widespread Ubuntu, I fear we are doomed.
For three years, members of Ubuntu Army represented vulnerable communities, around South Africa, and abroad, under incredibly challenging circumstances. In my home province of Kwa Zulu Natal, we have navigated the crippling financial and social effects of Covid and the starvation that resulted, endured the violence, destruction and death of widespread rioting and looting that gripped the province in July 2021, and survived the utter devastation of the April 2022 floods that destroyed the little resource that many tens of thousands had left after two years of struggle. It has been a lot, but Ubuntu Army got the job done. We have once more shepherded the victims of the riots and floods to safety, and in so doing cemented our reputation as a compassionate, no-nonsense, hands-on organisation. When we drive along Point Road in Durban’s CBD, refugees’ wave and punch the air, shouting Ubuntu. The same happens in the green valleys of Inanda, and further to the west in Kwangolosi. Something has changed. During our time with the humble people in these areas, we not only provided food, blankets, stoves, and homes, we unlocked hope. We delivered humanity. In those precious exchanges, the forgotten and ignored felt seen. Compassion builds community, and community destroys political division and poverty. Important tenants for a deeply divided and unequal society like South Africa.
And that is the story of how Ubuntu Army came to be. it grew from very simple beginnings. It grew, I believe, because it resonated with a few universal truths in the hearts and minds of the ordinary, everyday people from around the world. Ordinary people witnessed the work of an ordinary man and his truck and felt empowered to act on their own. If the simple acts of a single man can sow the seeds of compassion on a national, and international, level, then imagine what is possible if more people accept their responsibility to serve. If more people step forward and connect with one or two or three vulnerable families. This is real change, and I believe the politicians and non-profits will fall inline as the compassion spreads. Bold words, but based on a great deal of experience, evidence, global research, undiluted optimism, and success.
It has been the greatest privilege of my life to serve the vulnerable and humble people of South Africa, and although I am exhausted and traumatised, I have been left with hope for my country, and to be honest, with hope for humanity. All we need to do is to step out of our comfort zones and to meet the people on the other side of our road, on the other side of our town, on the other side of our social, economic, and political divide. On the other side of our fears. With connection, we can destroy division, and conquer the issues that we face as individuals, as cities, as countries. We have proved this repeatedly over the past three years. We supported hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people mainly in South Africa, but also around the world, through kind collective action, through the compassion of the ordinary, everyday, garden variety people. Ubuntu.
After three years of reacting to crisis, we are now beginning to organise and to strategize a proactive future for Ubuntu Army. In a recent post, I wrote,
“In the next month, we will unveil Ubuntu Army V2.0. We will present a clear vision for the future of our country, without rhetoric and agenda, a national call to service, a new accessible website, and a beautiful on-the-ground project that I believe will ignite, in the most vulnerable, a sense of hope and opportunity. What excites me most about our new proactive direction, is that our path forward is informed by the lessons we have learnt from three years of service in the most vulnerable communities of South Africa. Our new path is built on the incredible experience we have gained on the ground, during a pandemic, a riot, and a flood”
Ubuntu Army is now a registered non-profit company in California and South Africa. As we formalise our organisation, we are refining our approach to fighting poverty. We are transitioning from giving to growing. Ubuntu Army will concentrate on three core areas going forward.
Ubuntu Army will share Ubuntu Link far and wide. We will spread the philosophy and the practice of Ubuntu within the public and private domains. To this end, we plan to expand our existing technology platforms to facilitate the meeting of previously separated people, to engage with financial experts in creating investment mechanisms that members of any Link can create and grow, thereby creating educational and vocational capacity for the members of that Link, and their children, to create Ubuntu Link models for schools, corporates, churches, NPOs and other organisational structures, whereby organisations and their members are able to implement Ubuntu Links within the fabric of their structures, and in their own lives, to market the Ubuntu Link to the public by joining speaking circuits, writing editorials, web posts and academic papers on Ubuntu and the principle and practice of connection, and to continue to evangelise Ubuntu Link in documentaries, podcasts and all social media platforms available. The aim is to position #ubuntulink as a household symbol of change on all platforms and within all domains and organisational structures.
Ubuntu Army will continue to serve as a rallying point for individuals and communities who require help, and individuals who are prepared to help. In line with our last three years of reaction to crisis, Ubuntu Army will continue to serve those communities, in South Africa, and around the world, who are in crisis. We will do our best to be on the ground with them, to advocate for them and to mobilise on their behalf. In short, we will stick to our strengths and continue to serve the vulnerable, on the ground, in the mud, wherever they may be. During times of crisis we give. Unreservedly.
We explore poverty at the Poverty Lab. The Poverty Lab is a relatively new initiative. Having spent three years designing and planting urban micro-farms around South Africa, and based on their evolution and success, we decided to focus our attention on their continued research and development. At the same time we decided to open ousselves, and our resources, to new projects and to finding new solutions to poverty. We also opened ourselves to collaboration, and now harness the talents of some very smart people. And so the Poverty Lab was born. At the Poverty Lab, we unpack what it means to experience poverty, and what it means to be poor. We unpack to learn, to decode, to define the problems and to create paths forward. Clear, discernible paths. We harness the creative, critical and strategic thinking of our team to design system, technology, apparatus, perspective that fight poverty. We aim to end poverty. For now, we are able to reveal the Ubuntu Farm. Two new projects are currently under development, and as discernable results from our tests, and their trials, become available, we will present our findings and suggestions here. Our findings are open source and available to all for duplication.
Ubuntu Army will continue to develop the science of the Ubuntu Farm, and continue to distribute them into the poorest, most vulnerable, and most crowded settlements in South Africa. While first- and second-generation farms were planted during a period of crisis and resource scarcity, and could feed a family, the logistics in distributing these farms were too intense and cost prohibitive. Now that crisis has passed, and we are left with structural domestic poverty, the ability to feed the vulnerable in a crowded informal settlement is no longer our prerogative. Sparking their imagination is. Ubuntu Army aims to ignite the imagination of the urban poor to the possibilities that farming on a small commercial scale, outside of the settlements and slums, on the large tracts of tribal and government land, offer them. In order to ignite the imagination of the most vulnerable, and to help them reclaim their hope, we need to provide an option to their poverty, an option that inspires them, that creates a future for them. The Ubuntu Farm is this future.
Our approach to urban farming It is a radical departure from past and current non-profit thinking, but one that is based on our experience in the poorest settlements in South Africa, on the legacy and heritage of the African subsistence farmer, on witnessing the failure of countless community farms, on available opportunities and resources, and on the fact that the economies of most South African cities are crumbling and will not be able to support the number of people resident in the townships and settlements surrounding the cities, who are all desperate for employment, and who cannot survive on the produce of personal or community urban farms. It’s a no brainer.
The third-generation Ubuntu Farm is a vertical, wall mounted, rip-stop nylon sheet of 20 pouches, that hangs on an exterior wall of any house or structure, and that can grow between 20 and 30 plants. The sheet, along with 20 specifically selected organic, heirloom vegetable and herb seeds, and an information and instruction pack, will be rolled up into a cardboard tube, and distributed via courier or via one of the national retail outlets to those identified as new farmers. The farms will also be offered for sale to the public, and all Ubuntu Links created, either on a personal or organisational level, will be encouraged to include the farm into the dynamics of their Ubuntu Link. There is development ahead, but the Ubuntu Farm has gathered a great deal of momentum, and attention, and I believe that we need to invest in its future, as it has the potential to revolutionise farming and poverty.
While most non-profit organisations continue to actively ask the public to donate to their revenue models, we believe that if we are to create real change in the lives of the vulnerable then ordinary, everyday people will need their resources to create their own connections, to create their own Ubuntu Links, to create and support their own micro-communities. And sustain them. Charity is most often an inefficient virtue signal, where a great deal of resource and money is donated to organisations that achieve very little tangible or measurable change. The poverty, inequality and division is increasing, despite growth in the non-profit sector. It is an industry like any other, based on revenue streams. To this end, we very seldom ask our members for contributions. Instead we advocate for connection. And serve.
If we are to create structural change in our cities, in our society, and in the lives of the most vulnerable, then #ubuntulink must become a national virtue, perhaps even a global ethic, by which we all live. This will require a great deal of time and commitment. This will also require money, a resource I don’t particularly like. Money muddies the water, and detracts from the work, and the connection, created by doing the work. The connection is everything. With that said, Ubuntu Army does require financial support to:
Respond to crisis when it arises
Advocate for #ubuntulink as a national and international ethic
Develop and plant millions of Ubuntu Farms
Explore poverty within the Poverty Lab and find real solutions to poverty
Cover Ubuntu Army administrative costs
In the long term, Ubuntu Army, would like to buy a farm, on which a dedicated Ubuntu Farm seed farm, a production centre for the manufacture of Ubuntu Farm hardware, and a packing and distribution facility is built. The farm will also house the Poverty Lab, a dedicated research facility that can house a few smart and experienced social scientists and designers. A collaborative centre where open-source research is generated and shared with civil society to better inform decision making on. charity, assistance and donation. On our relationship with, and our response to poverty. To help forge a new direction for South Africa, and to serve as an example to the rest of the world, as to what is possible with collective, individual action. Ubuntu
Clint McLean, Durban 2023