Traveling in the Spirit of Ubuntu, Part 1: What is Ubuntu?

In the first piece of a multi-part series on responsible tourism, scientist and travel expert Louise de Waal examines the concept of Ubuntu, and how travelers can practice it.

Most of us are at least somewhat aware of the devastating impact that mass tourism can have.

Thousands of tourists on package holidays fly to remote beach locations in Africa overflowing with large all-inclusive resorts, which are often built without regard to their impact on the local environment and without adopting any green practices. This year-round stream of tourists uses huge amounts of scarce resources like fresh water, creating large quantities of waste in areas without proper treatment or recycling facilities. Guests often don’t venture outside of their hotel, and hence do not contribute to the local economy. Local people employed in those same hotels in unskilled jobs often face appallingly low wages and poor working conditions, or worse, cases of child sex exploitation. The list is rather long and depressing, and they are certainly not traveling in the spirit of Ubuntu.

I am not here to preach and dampen your spirits, as we all need our holidays. It is important to switch off from our jobs and everyday trials and tribulations, to relax, enjoy, explore, and basically enjoy a slice of life in paradise.

Africa is one of the most diverse, vibrant, and thought-provoking continents with humbling scenery and unique natural environments. To connect with its beautiful and resourceful people is a true honour and privilege. Tourism is also essential for many developing countries, contributing positively to GDP, and helping to conserve wildlife and protect natural resources.

However, the privilege of travel also comes with responsibility, which we sometimes (conveniently) overlook.

What is Ubuntu?

Many southern African languages have a fascinating word called “ubuntu,” which doesn’t really have a direct translation in western lingo. Ubuntu approximately correlates with “human-ness,” a quality that includes essential virtues such as compassion and humanity.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks of Ubuntu, he explains that you cannot exist as a human being in isolation, since we are all interconnected:

“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

When we travel, we are accountable for our impact on the natural environment, wildlife, and cultural heritage of the areas we visit. We have a responsibility to minimise these impacts, and to ensure that we make a positive difference to the people and local economy.

To me this is the true essence of travelling in the spirit of Ubuntu, and is the basis for responsible tourism. I would like to share some tips and stories on how to travel in the spirit of Ubuntu and make a difference when you next visit the awe inspiring continent that is Africa.

Find your Ubuntu

Responsible tourism lasts from the moment you start thinking about your next holiday until the time you arrive safely back home again. Whether you wish to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, find those mountain gorillas in the mist, or just sip cocktails on a palm-fringed white sandy beach, the principles of travel in the spirit of Ubuntu are pretty much the same.

If you like to use a tour operator to organise your travel, try to choose one that doesn’t just “talk the talk” but actually “walks the walk.” Start by searching their website for an environmental and/or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. If they haven’t got one online, chances are they have not developed one, and have probably not even thought about it. But it’s still worth asking the question.

It is also important to know what the tour operator commits to at home, as well as who they work with in the host destination. Do they show awareness of their own impact on the environment and do they have any practices in place to reduce these impacts? This can be anything from calculating the business’s carbon footprint and making an effort to offset it, to recycling (office paper, glass, cans, plastic, cartridges, and e-waste), making efforts to reduce the use of paper by using e-communication, and local procurement.

Check out your tour operator’s CSR projects. Do they give in-kind to local social or environmental projects by offering their staff’s time (e.g. a soup kitchen project), or do they donate a percentage of their profits to worthwhile causes (e.g. anti-poaching initiatives)?

Does your tour operator have its own house in order? This is slightly more difficult to determine, but look for legal status, whether they offer fair working conditions to their employees without discrimination against gender, age, and religion, and whether they provide training and skills development opportunities for staff.

The Bottom Line

What it boils down to is that we all need to do our bit for Ubuntu: travellers, airlines, hoteliers, tour operators, and transfer providers, both in the host destination, and also at home.

One of my favourite (and timeless) travel quotes comes from the inimitable Mark Twain:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour and catch the Trade Winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

To which I would add: As long as you travel in the spirit of Ubuntu.

Louise de Waal is the former founder/MD of Baobab Travel, which was one of the first tour operators to become Fair Trade in Tourism Approved by South Africa’s Fair Trade Tourism organization. She currently blogs for Green Girls in Africa, and the Good Holiday community.  She holds a PhD in environmental management.

Read the rest of Louise’s series here:

Part 2: Traversing the Continent With Cultural Sensitivity

Part 3: The Three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Part 4: Take Only Memories, Leave Nothing But Footprints

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  1. John Williams
    John Williams
    Jun 26, 2014

    Louise, I am using Ubuntu software to type this comment, I may well go out and buy an Ubuntu Cola...

    Louise, I am using Ubuntu software to type this comment, I may well go out and buy an Ubuntu Cola later. Travelling in the spirit of Ubuntu, is a tremendous explanation for my travel aspirations.
    I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

  2. Louise De Waal
    Louise De Waal
    Jun 26, 2014

    Hi John, I am glad that travelling in the Spirit of Ubuntu has inspired you. Hopefully it will do the...

    Hi John, I am glad that travelling in the Spirit of Ubuntu has inspired you. Hopefully it will do the same for many other people using the site. Please let me know when you have found that supplier for the Ubuntu Cola 😉 Go well on your travels, Louise

  3. John Williams
    John Williams
    Jun 27, 2014

    :) Louise, I'm sure you are aware that as the first Fair Trade Cola, Ubuntu is available at OXFAM Shops...

    🙂 Louise, I’m sure you are aware that as the first Fair Trade Cola, Ubuntu is available at OXFAM Shops and at EXKI Vegetarian Restaurants in Belgium and beyond. In the end I stuck with water. I’m told the lions drink it. 😉

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