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South African Human Rights Activist Naomi Tutu Explains the Responsibility of Being Human

Growing up in South African culture where life lessons are largely taught through proverbs, Naomi Tutu, a self-proclaimed “literal-minded African child,” struggled to understand many of them – but none more than this one:

Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu.

However, it’s the one lesson she has found to be the most useful in her life. “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” is an African proverb that means “A person is a person through other people.”

Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu, used this proverb as the theme for her “The Responsibility of Being Human” presentation at the N. San Diego Business Chamber Leaders of Change Luncheon, presented by The San Diego Foundation in connection with San Diego Women’s Week.

Tutu’s 30-minute presentation at the Del Mar Country Club left the crowd in laughter and awe throughout, and shared a very inspiring message with attendees.

“We all are born human, biologically, human,” Tutu said. “But we are taught what it means to be a full human being by our interaction with other human beings.… It is through other people that we learn how to be a full person.”

She said people cannot diminish or demean another person without diminishing or demeaning themselves, and people can’t build up or raise someone else without being lifted up themselves.

“Whatever you do in the world pays back to you, reflects back on you,” Tutu said.

Watch a short clip of Tutu’s presentation:

“Be the Great Human Beings That We Can Be”

Tutu, who used both humorous and heartfelt examples from her childhood throughout her presentation, said the proverb finally began to make sense after a conversation with her grandmother, when she was trying to understand some of the challenges about growing up as a black female in an oppressed society.

For the first time, she recognized that the same people who were oppressing her South African family were also living in a fear of their own privilege being ripped away from them.

“[The proverb] isn’t to say we are stuck being who we are,” Tutu said. “The proverb is actually giving the opportunity to be the great human beings that we can be. It is supposed to remind us in those times of stress or times of greatness that ‘is this the human being I want to be’?”

Tutu stressed the importance of being aware of both human gifts and human failures and emphasized that no one is perfect. She said life gives everyone a chance to decide who they want to be, to connect with others, to understand others and to be amazed by others.

Although she initially struggled understanding “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” as a child, it’s the one proverb that she has come back to over and over again throughout her lifetime.

“If you were to ask my children, they would roll their eyes and say ‘oh yes, we know that one’,” she said. “A person is a person only through other people.”

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