“Ubuntu”, the beautiful story of an anthropologist and an African tribe? Mistrust !

The Internet has its classics. Today we tell you the story of one of them. A recurring hoax on social networks, massively reproduced for several years, and still very viral in recent days on Facebook. With the exception of a few words, the story is generally told this way:

“An anthropologist offered a game to children from a tribe in southern Africa. He put a basket full of sweet fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever gets there first will get all the fruit. When he told them to run, all the children started at the same time… holding hands! Then they sat down together to enjoy these good fruits. When the anthropologist asked them why they had run like this when one of them could have had all the fruits to himself, they replied, “UBUNTU. How can any of us? to be happy if everyone else is sad? ” UBUNTU in the Xhosa culture of southern Africa means: “I am because we are.” “

A story as beautiful as it has embellished over the years.


Some versions of this viral publication specify that this story was first told by Argentine journalist and philosopher Lia Diskin during the Peace Festival in Florianopolis (southern Brazil) in 2006. Contacted by 20 Minutes, Lia Diskin replied that she would tell us “the whole story”.

She explains to us that she discovered the anecdote when reading a book by Raimon Panikkar, Catalan author and philosopher who died in 2010. In the spirit of politics, published in 1998 and written in Portuguese, Panikkar mentions an experience that has been reported to him. We have translated into French the extract quoted by Lia Diskin:

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“The cousin of one of my students, when Kennedy had created a peacekeeping force to send aid to areas known as the ‘Third World’, was doing a teaching assignment in a small village in Africa. Yet he didn’t want to teach the children anything. He considered it an act of colonialism. The only thing he agreed to do was give gymnastics lessons. One day he came in front of the kids with a box of candy and I don’t know what else. All the children waited for him. And the young American said to them, “Look at that tree there, a hundred or two hundred yards; I count ‘one, two, three’ and you will start running. Whoever wins will have the prize.” The seven or eight boys in the village were nervous. He said “one, two, three” and all the boys held hands and ran together: they wanted to share the prize. Their happiness was the happiness of all. Perhaps these boys offer a breeding ground for cultivating new bases for democratic life. “

Many distorted elements on the Internet

If it is impossible to confirm the authenticity of the anecdote recorded by Raimon Panikkar in his book for lack of precise details, we can in any case notice that many elements have been distorted over the years on social networks. In particular, incorrect photographs and details were associated with this account.

First, the young American became an anthropologist who decided to conduct an experiment. As pointed out by Les Observateurs de France 24, the man in the photo accompanying some of the publications is not an anthropologist. It is actually a Brazilian photographer, Alexandre Suplicy. The photography is present on his professional website as well as on top his social networks.

Screenshot of the website of the Brazilian photographer, author of the photographs taken in many viral publications, at the origin of a very famous hoax. – Alexandre Suplicy

During a trip to Namibia – in southern Africa -, the professional went to a village accompanied by his partner. There, he took pictures of several children. “I was taking pictures and they were very curious to see the result, so I showed them,” he told France 24.

The “box of candies” mentioned in the original text has become “a basket full of sweet fruits”. An evolution undoubtedly motivated by the search for a balanced diet for the little heroes of this story.

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“Ubuntu”, a philosophical concept

The account has also been fleshed out with quotes attributed to the children, in particular the reference to the word “ubuntu”. The meaning of this concept, which comes from the Xhosa language, is close to that mentioned in the viral post. According to author Mungi Ngomane, it translates into a “South African philosophy that sums up our aspirations for well-being and well-being”.

But Lia Diskin explains that it was she who made the analogy by associating the concept of “ubuntu” with the anecdote of her fellow philosopher, who did not originally mention this notion in his book. “I made this link between the experience observed by the teacher and the concept,” she explains. The philosopher believes that its translation could be the following sentences: “I am what I am because we are all” or “the conviction of a universal bond of sharing which binds all humanity”.

A classic of hoax …

In the end, the hoax that circulates on social networks is a textbook case. It brings together a large number of clichés, here on African peoples, does not mention any source, and contains a touching and easy to understand moral.

Asked about this hoax by Rue89 in 2016 (already!), Emmanuelle Sibeud, professor of contemporary history at Paris VIII specializing in “postcolonial studies” denounced a text which wants to endow a people “with an unalterable and pacifist traditional culture”. “Culturalism in the worst sense of the word”, amounting to mythifying a population, forgetting that it is, “like any other human group, an actor in its culture and not dominated by it”.

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Long live urban legends

Asked by 20 Minutes on the elements added to this story and its virality, Lia Diskin says she is delighted. “I loved knowing that this episode went around the world! For the philosopher, there are no “false details”. These are “only new readings, reinterpretations, creative memories … If you dwell on mythologies or on the reconstruction of oral communication in different societies, you will find different versions of alleged facts that have occurred either in history or in the imagination of a culture, ”she argues. Proof that this beautiful urban legend still has a bright future ahead of her… Unless you have read this article!