African Trains: Embodying the Spirit of Ubuntu

By  Susan Cairnie February 3, 2011

This tells the story of the crowded, slow, inefficient trains in South Africa, which low income people ride each day, sharing stories, laughter, friendship and a joy for life in one of the most unexpected of places.

I recently spent a year studying in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and volunteering in Cape Town, which was an hour away.  One of my most meaningful experiences at the time was using the trains as my main form of transport between the two cities.

The trains are crowded and dirty, frequently too hot or too cold, often leak during the rainy season, and are known to arrive late or not at all.  While at first I felt a bit worried by this, as well as intimidated at being the only white person in a crowded carriage, I quickly began to relax and to instead focus on the people around me.

The trains were packed full of black and mixed race South Africans: young girls and boys in faded but clean school uniforms carrying backpacks covered in felt pen messages, tired, thin men heading to Cape Town hoping to find a day’s work, and beaming women, babies tied to their backs with towels and blankets, wearing brightly colored skirts and head scarves, heading into town to clean the houses of the wealthy.

Instead of plugging into iPods or text messaging on cell phones, the people around me engaged in lively, casual banter with those near them, gently teasing and laughing with each other.  If someone had a radio, they proudly turned it up to full blast, and everyone leaned in to hear the soccer report or the latest pop song, the teenagers swaying their hips and moving to the music.  If an older women or man came on to the train, young people sprang up to help them with their bags and offer them their seats. 

Occasionally a blind singer would enter our carriage, and make his way slowly down the aisle, singing hymns in a beautiful, haunting voice.  As a small child led the singer towards them, the people around me began to stir, reaching into their pockets and handkerchiefs to pull out a few carefully hidden coins to place in the singer’s red plastic cup.  I was amazed to see people who had so little, many of whom were unemployed or did not make enough money to feed themselves each day, let alone their families, making the effort to support someone in even greater need. 

While many South Africans view the trains as dangerous and inefficient, I left the train each day feeling both refreshed and humbled.  Spending time with people who seemed to lack so much, compared to those in my country, Canada, enabled me to see that they were at the same time rich in ways we could only hope to learn.  The kindness of spirit, the generosity, and the caring for humanity that I saw around me, truly personified the South African spirit of ubuntu.  This concept can be roughly translated to mean, “a person is a person through helping other people” and through their generosity and friendliness, I truly saw my fellow train passengers come alive.

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