As the Arts and Culture Writer for The Phoenix News, I have been able to meet so many incredibly talented creatives in the community. Last month, I was honoured to be able to speak with Lady Dia and Trophy Ewila about two events they were curating and hosting for an article I was writing. The first event was the Circle of Ubuntu Exhibit, which featured several talented Black and Indigenous creatives in the community, and the Ubuntu Conference, which continued the conversation of inclusivity, creating spaces, and mental well-being through the lens of Ubuntu, I am because you are. The Phoenix’s Features Writer/Editor Brandon Koo, Videographer/Photographer Conan Shing, and I were able to attend The Ubuntu Conference and share the space (both virtually and in person) with so many amazing people from within the community. It was truly an experience and space I will never forget. There was laughter and tears, speaking and listening, sounds and silence. But as Lady Dia, Trophy Ewila, and many of the other speakers present were explaining, these are all necessary and connected to the concepts of Ubuntu, the Jam, flow, space, situating oneself, and mental health.
As Lady Dia and Trophy Ewila explained, spaces for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour are essential, yet are often very limited, policed, and under the white gaze. At the same time, mental health is seen as an extremely taboo topic even though it has immeasurable importance. At the intersection of these two issues is where this article seeks to explore through the lens of Ubuntu and the Jam.
After the Ubuntu Conference, Brandon and I had the honour of interviewing Lady Dia and Trophy Ewila to continue the discussions of mental health and interconnectedness seen in both the Circle of Ubuntu Exhibit and the Ubuntu Conference. As Brandon will go on to explain, Lady Dia and Trophy Ewila reveal the importance and significance of the Ubuntu philosophy and the concept of the Jam in regards to building and upholding community, holding space, and mental well-being.
Ubuntu - The Language of the Moment
An enduring paradox of the human experience is that we must mediate the dangers of the future, with the consequences of the past and reality of the present when making decisions. It is in this space that is seemingly no space that we must find ourselves and direct our future. Consequently, there is more than ample opportunity for stress, anxiety, and fear to begin to subsume our lives. To the best of my understanding, Ubuntu, as a paradigm, offers people a multifaceted and compassionate understanding of their experience of the self that can be an invaluable buffer against these sources of distress. It was my distinct pleasure to be a part of this interview with the founders of Kinfolk nation and have the privilege to decode the ways they understand and personify the spirit of Ubuntu in their lives.
One of the hallmark features of an Ubuntu philosophy is that it anchors an individual to the present moment. In my conversation with Lady Dia, she mentioned that in her time at UBCO she majored in Indigenous Studies, and was moved by the emphasis of placing oneself in all contexts and of intentional embodiment of the self. This notion of embodiment is incorporated into her practice of Ubuntu.
“How I understood embodiment is to just be and to really be as true to what you are learning in your life, asking how that comes forth in your own body.”
An Ubuntu way of life argues that there is a fundamental wisdom to be found in understanding the subjective feelings, physiological changes and perceptions that well up from one’s own physicality in relation to others and in the current context.
Every single interaction and emergent mood becomes a source of knowledge for a practitioner of this way of life and a means of grounding our mind away from the past and into the moment. The necessity of present-time orientation for the modern era cannot be understated. Between social media and the frenetic pace of university life, it can feel like we are being ushered from moment to moment at breakneck speed.
Taking a pause to feel the day-by-day manifestations of our beings in the world can bring the meaning in the mundane to our awareness. It is in the seemingly quotidian ways that we articulate our person in the world that we find the signs of unhealthy relationships developing, both to ourselves and to others. If you miss your family and you feel a pang of regret in your chest from showing sadness, it may be a sign that you have been coping with pain by repressing your feelings. If you make a harsh comment or judgement that part of you recoils at, it might be time to explore where that feeling comes from. It may be part of a larger scheme of evaluations about life and the world that you direct at yourself.
Of course, it may be none of these things as well. However, in order to be sure, one must be rooted in the moment-moment expression of your being and its impact on your relationships with yourself and with others. Lady Dia brilliantly captures this idea when discussing the role that Ubuntu plays in her use of music to situate herself. Her performances, extemporaneous and ecstatic in the conference, bring her to a place of emotional honesty in the current moment that enables her to diffuse her fears and do her best.
“You actually have to feel people’s energies and then you go off that and you say what you feel inside. The things you are telling people, you are also telling yourself.”
Whether it be thoughts in our mind or words escaping our mouth, the positivity and the negativity of the content matters for our behaviours and our feelings. Contrary to traditional Western ideas of the self-concept existing in isolation, Ubuntu and Kinfolk display a clear recognition of the self as it is integrated into a collective. You are an accumulated whole built up from the experiences and narratives of your past and the past and present of people like you; this is further strained by the angst that you hold for the future. Hence the problem of tension, fear, and, sometimes, feelings of unworthiness.
There is no self apart from your relationships to your internal and external worlds. Ubuntu is profound in its simplicity because at its core it is about the interplay of these relationships. I am because you are. Or in academic terms, it is the language of intersubjectivity as it is spoken within the moment.
Trophy Ewila discussed the nature of this bond between persons as it unfolds within spaces where they endeavour to create oneness within the room and in doing so underscores the need for a sensitivity to the energies of different persons. In his view, shared energy, the consequences of our unconscious and conscious behaviours for our mood and the mood of others, is exponential and powerful.
“If you think of a circle, it is like a spiral; each time a new person comes, they add more because they bring their circle so it becomes a continuous spiral. It is important to bring us to the present and to feel that connection.”
One way to bring oneself to the present and feel that connection according to Ewila is to take out the layers of who you think you are, from wherever you come and wherever you have been, and just be.
Though this may seem a foreign concept to many, there is nothing esoteric about its message at its core. Ubuntu asserts that it is both natural and unproblematic to feel tension from the different ways that our selves exist. It sees no need to be tortured by worry and guilt from the past because the present is where we exist and negotiate the future. When we allow ourselves to treat the present with the urgency and positioning it deserves, we can make peace with the past and meet the demands of our future.
Art and Ubuntu - Rending Shame of Its Sting
One of the most compelling emotions that can direct our mind’s focus to the past is shame. From a psychological level, shame is thought to emerge when we violate a standard or rule upheld by the community and we determine that we make a personal judgement about it. For instance, thinking that it is because we are ignoble, inferior or inadequate that X has occurred. With this lens, it is not surprising that this emotion is a recurrent feature of the lived experience of many living with poor mental health. I was particularly interested in probing Kinfolk on the utility of Ubuntu and art in changing our relationship to emotions like shame. Lady Dia describes shame as being a product of thinking that one’s story and style of interpretation are less than.
I think this pitches a nuanced understanding of shame because the violation of culturally imposed convention can emerge from an action but also from simply daring to be in the world as our authentic selves.
Ubuntu and art intersect to combat shame as artistry demands a nakedness of the individual and the philosophy invites the world to regard the self as it is presented in this present moment with its blemishes on display. Lady Dia makes reference to their Circle of Ubuntu Exhibit held in early October to expound on the curative power of the canvas over shame:
“Some of these students are not actually in the arts program or creative program, they do not actually do art at school. They are doing other things and they turn to art because they had so much going on in their hearts and their minds and they just needed to release.”
Students from various faculties turned their turmoil and struggles with mental health and sensitive feelings into works on display for their community to see. The Ubuntu component to this is essential in removing shame as Lady Dia expounds, “[The Ubuntu Exhibit Circle] was basically saying that I am because you are even in your shame, even in your pain, even in all of the struggles you can still exist and be held in a space and community.”
It is my humble opinion that the therapeutic merit of events like these for persons living with intense feelings of low self-esteem and shame cannot be understated. It is this exposure within a controlled environment that builds security in being our genuine selves in spite of our feelings of weakness and undesirability--because the threat of judgement and ostracization has been expunged.
When shame becomes a recurrent problem in our lives it is often the result of a real or perceived promise of harm from the outside world that has imposed some criterion on our personhood.
However, I would argue that the communities that matter to us will not see our suffering or innate differences as confirmation that we are abominable. The Ubuntu way ensures that they will see the feelings of insufficiency and ugliness at the root of shame as a binding thread that weaves together rather than something that severs and destroys.
Ubuntu in Practice - Centering One’s Attention
Ubuntu captures the often-ephemeral wisdom of a present moment, a feeling, or an intuition and directs the individual to pay attention. But what does that actually look like? Many of the courses in psychology at UBC leave our understanding of therapeutic interventions at a very theoretical level or in the context of an office space. However, for both students and persons seeking help themselves, how does one actualize their conceptual grasp on a construct like Ubuntu to improve their lives?
According to Lady Dia, the answer lies in paying attention, “Ubuntu makes you pay attention because it is not just about you as an individual, it is about the collective. It is ‘I am because you are’ so how is the ‘you are’ doing?”
She concedes that this process can be laborious but also adds that the benefits are well worth it. She explains that an everyday incorporation of Ubuntu into her life has created experiences of a state of heightened awareness. In this mode of being, one can access information about the self and the world in a way that offers a guide on how to conduct yourself in a fashion attuned to both internal and external pressures. The structure and organization of your feelings and plans within an Ubuntu framework are intimately connected to the different messages you receive from your environment. The deliberate slowness of Ubuntu provides for protean positioning of the self in relation to stressors. In other words, it is an attentive and responsive flexibility of the mind that sees signals from the world around us as instructive and meaningful.
Moreover, in his exposition on the topic, Trophy Ewila discusses the use of the Jam, a frequent component of Kinfolk nation performances, where both he and Lady Dia catch a beat and a vibe and invite the room of guests to participate. Naturally, the spontaneous nature of the Jam ensures that things do not always move smoothly. It requires a level of patience and a tolerance of the awkwardness frequently found in the infancy of progress:
“We are always so quick, quick, quick, quick, to get somewhere but sometimes it is slowing down that will help you get to the right place at the right time. Sometimes it is not in how quick you want to do something; it is in how you have to pace yourself. To learn how to walk you have to slow down your pace so you can learn how to balance. It is the same way with the Jam and it is the same way with Ubuntu.
Even when you come into your room and it has been a constant mess for a while and you ask yourself ‘why haven’t I found the rhythm enough to allow it to change or to move my space in a way that can allow me to feel?’”
Ewila offers a perfect example of how a process like this may be applied in our daily routines. If you can push through the resistance that can sometimes present itself when paying attention which fuels procrastination on the things you know you should be doing, you can find the pace you need to begin moving.
Ubuntu - Of Healing and Protest
The teachings of Ubuntu have also underpinned Kinfolk’s approach to defying racial and social dynamics and inequities in Kelowna. I was intrigued by the potential interactions between Ubuntu and race because for Indigenous people and persons of colour it is a matter of life and death to dwell on the differences and the separations between others. “I am because you are” becomes a strained ideal when the “you are” is hostile.
In her response, Lady Dia demonstrates an awareness of this potential challenge and Kinfolk has worked to confront this through a series of talks held at UBCO. The series held February of this year was called “Through the Lens - I am because you are vs I am because you are not.” Within the title alone, one can see the ethos of togetherness that pervades Ubuntu wherein the dignity of one’s identity is not produced by robbing another of their own.
Trophy Ewila goes on to expound this notion further. He discusses the quasi-electric feeling of alienation and difference that can emerge in the bodies of persons who do not belong in a space and how that produces an influence that is carried from place to place within.
“If you go to the university, it has a different feeling. If you went into a room with people who have a culture that naturally presupposes that because of your skin tone, you are someone less. You are in a position of fear most of the time. You are tense, you are always paying attention, you are cautious because you know how much your body can garner attention.”
As Ewila describes, Kinfolk aims to create spaces where one must “embody having to deal with all those mixed dynamics, the oddness of the environment, and having to be there and linger within that and understand it because trying to get out of the situation is hard and unavoidable especially when you are around this whole space.”
There was undeniable proof of his words in the Conference itself where, during the Jam, persons of many different racial backgrounds (and singing ability) worked their way through their own awkwardness around each other into much mirth, laughter, and joyful song.
I posit that the same process can be applied to navigating the racial barriers that produce division. Healing as understood within the framework of Ubuntu is a dialogic process where both parties admit the nature of their hurt, identify the authors of said pain, and bear the weight and clumsiness of the progress.
The history of racial dynamics in Kelowna alone is complex beyond the scope of this article, but a path towards reconciliation and accountability can only be carved through possessing the forbearance to sit in the discomfort that is the heavy truth of an unjust reality. When we persevere through this, we often realize that these barriers are far more permeable than we first imagined.
In his concluding remarks, Ewila left me with a question that inspired much hope in my mind for the potential for change:
“Every day, that movement, even all of us that agreed to believe in this idea of Kelowna and enact it. We vote for people who say they are going to do certain things, now we ask where are you now? We agreed to call it Kelowna. All of us that are enacting this thing are all tied together, so how are we going to find the rhythm?”
The mantra “I am because you are” behind the Ubuntu way carries an implicit caution that the “I am” is incomplete when isolated.
When Ewila stopped playing the guitar, the performance was not the same--something vital was removed and the idea of the Jam was disrupted. When we silence voices that threaten our comfort simply by being, when we marginalize the diverse actors who enact their truth as residents of the Okanagan, the rhythm of Kelowna is disrupted.
However, it is not lost; all we have to do is let them in and let them work.