I am only well if you are well: can the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy help drive the acceptance of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa? by Joan Njagi

In the face of growing resistance of religious and conservative groups on the African continent to the advancement of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), this article discusses the potential for African philosophy and theories to drive the acceptance of SRHR here and elsewhere. Utu-Ubuntu, a philosophy focusing on humanity and interconnectedness, may help to bridge divisions and advance SRHR for young people on the continent, writes Joan Njagi.


Two events that occurred in Nairobi toward the end of 2019 provided the backdrop for reflection on new ways of overcoming cleavages related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Africa. The first was the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) Conference in October and the second the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) +25 Nairobi Summit in November. As an African researcher working on SRHR, specifically those of young people, the events were meaningful to me for two reasons: the ASAA Conference highlighted the need for African scholarship to interrogate, unearth, and consequently contribute to addressing development challenges on the continent. The ICPD25 Nairobi Summit on the other hand was an important platform to take stock of progress on the landmark programme of action to advance SRHR, adopted by 179 countries across the world during the first ICPD Conference held in Cairo in 1994.

Important discussions and commitments aside, the ICPD +25 Nairobi Summit also brought to the fore the contestation of SRHR on the African continent. This contestation stems mostly from religious and conservative groups that have framed the SRHR agenda, specifically comprehensive sexuality education, abortion rights, and LGBTIQ rights, as a western imposition that poses a threat to the African family. These groups have been agitating for the need for African-developed solutions that uphold religious teachings and what they claim to be African culture including value for the unborn, sexual chastity for young people, sexual attraction and intimacy in heterosexual relationships only, as well as the patriarchal positioning of women as non-autonomous. These contestations continue despite evidence demonstrating the inaccuracies in such homogenized conceptualisations of African culture.

The contestation surrounding SRHR issues on the African continent as demonstrated by anti-SRHR and anti-rights protests during ICPD Summit brings me back to the ASAA Conference. One thing that struck a chord with me during the ASAA Conference is the need for African theories to drive the development agenda in Africa. I was particularly captivated by the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy in decolonising the understanding and conceptualisation of African cities, which was discussed in a keynote address titled “Rethinking the African Metropolis: From problem cities to Utu-Ubuntu cities of self-reliance and solidarity” delivered by Dr. Mary Kinyanjui, a Kenyan scholar, whose work focusses on gender and urban informal economies.

Utu and Ubuntu are East and Southern African concepts, respectively, which stem from the words mtu in Swahili and muntu in the Nguni Bantu languages, both of which mean human being. The underlying philosophy of Utu and Ubuntu is therefore of humanity and being humane. Utu-ubuntu espouses the values of interconnectedness and interdependence of our humanity, such that an individual cannot be self-sufficient or thrive on their own, hence the need for community. Utu-ubuntu is therefore based on the understanding that each person has a responsibility to accord others compassion, fairness, and respect, so that everyone can live in dignity. This involves embracing oneness and solidarity as well as sharing, generosity, and inclusiveness. It further requires adhering to basic norms of kindness, brotherhood, and sisterhood.

Prof. Micere Mugo, a literary critic and professor of literature at Syracuse University, who was forced into exile from Kenya for her political activism during Kenya’s second president Moi’s dictatorial regime, summed up the essence of Utu-Ubuntu perfectly during her keynote at the ASAA Conference when responding “I am only well if you are well” to a Shona greeting.

Since the ASAA conference, I have been thinking about what it would mean to apply the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy in my work as an SRHR researcher and a scholar working on adolescent SRHR. In my work, I have met teenage girls and young women who are pregnant and uncertain about their future and some whose dreams have been shattered by teenage pregnancy and early motherhood. The stigma and shame suffered as result of teenage pregnancy has resulted in insurmountable mental health challenges.

What has often irked me is how society has failed these girls and young women by depriving them of information due to the silences and taboos surrounding sexuality, as well as moralistic messages on sex and sexuality, driven by religious and conservative discourses around children’s sexuality. As a result, young people often have inadequate, inaccurate, and even misleading information about their bodies, relationships, sex, condoms, contraceptives, and abortion.

Rather than humanise young people as people who experience sexuality as part of being human, society has instead chosen to condemn their sexuality and expose them to confusion and vulnerability. Yet by condemning young people for having sex, for being human, we fail to espouse Utu-Ubuntu, and instead live out the western individualism that we often critique as un-African.

What if we instead humanised the way we approach young people’s sexuality and sought to ensure that they live a life of dignity and respect? What if we humanised knowledge beyond providing statistics to actually engage and understand issues from the perspectives of young people? What if we saw young people first as human beings with feelings, desires and the need to explore and therefore support them to do so safely? What if advocacy efforts centered on solidarity to advance young people’s wellbeing rather than advancing ideology that dehumanises young people?

The future of Africa depends on our ability to not only espouse the spirit of Utu-Ubuntu, but to practice it. This requires the understanding that Africa can only be well if her young people are also well, in all ways, including in their sexual health.


Image Credit: T-shirts of Mike


About the author:

Joan.jpgJoan Njagi is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), of Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Her research examines the role of ICTs and digital technologies in navigating the socio-cultural tensions that surround sexual and reproductive health and rights, and their role in reconceptualising sexual health interventions for 10-17 year old girls. She also consults on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the East and Southern Africa (ESA) region.

Email: wanjiranjagi@gmail.com

Twitter: @Kenyanfeminist

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I am only well if you are well: can the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy help drive the acceptance of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa? by Joan Njagi