Joint Possession: Ubuntu and the Sharing Economy in Sierra Leone

A Sierra Leonean woman lives a double existence and keeps her work life a secret. Zainab Lamin works full-time as a housekeeper but becomes a different person when around her family. At home, she tells her sisters she is unemployed. “If they know I have a job,” she explains, “they will be sending their children to me – to pay for school fees”.1 She understands the social consequences of her employment and spins a narrative to keep her salary under wraps. Attempting to sidestep the financial demands of her sisters, she retains her wages for herself, jumping over the pre-expectations of her family’s sharing culture.

Habits of sharing financial wealth are a common feature of Sierra Leonean life, where families regularly share their income between siblings to help one another out. When it comes to customs in common however, Sierra Leone is not alone: sharing habits are a popular norm spanning far beyond West African borders. In Uganda, for instance, two sisters explained to The Economist, a newspaper, how they viewed their salary as something communal – something which belongs to the rest of the family. Whenever they earn, the money immediately goes toward their next of kin. “Your savings are in people,” one sister said. “So when I have a bad day I cannot starve”.2 Their economic behaviour functions as mutual help, preventing worst case scenarios when things suddenly go wrong.

Economists have labelled this the sharing economy in Africa, and its presence in Sierra Leone depends on a long line of continental traditions, passing through generation to generation, leading to the present day. Collectively, these traditions come under an all-encompassing term: ubuntu.

Ubuntu is a socio-economic philosophy chiefly concerned with community ethics – or as one South African scholar put it, with the development and maintenance of a society that values “sharing, charitableness, cooperation; [the] spirit of participatory humanism”.3 Lying at the core of local ways of living, ubuntu determines the shape of African business culture, where family is foremost, and the place of the common good drives all business-related activity. Ubuntu is a bedrock of local life – a benevolent worldview, a charitable lifestyle which honours all human relationships, enabling a sense of compassion for one’s community. In a ubuntu-based society,all human interactions work within this communal framework – even for those like Zainab who decide to work against it.

In Sierra Leone’s case, everything from money to medical practice adheres to the processes of ubuntu. In responding to the country’s long-standing crisis with Ebola, a Sierra Leonean psychologist reflected on the social makeup of communities outside of Freetown, the capital, specifically referring to the mental costs of the disease. “Places such as Sierra Leone need fewer formal mental health services than western countries, he says, because its people are able to rely so heavily on community structure[s] – families, traditional healers and religious leaders – during times of emotional distress.”4 The same attitude goes for businesses in the country, where tradition is paramount. The sharing economy is deeply rooted in the ways which people go about their day-to-day lives. Confronting commerce and crises alike, Sierra Leonean culture has one goal in mind: to see communities thrive.

Ubuntu stands in sharp contrast with popular business practices current in Europe and the West, where self-determination – the requirement for individual bank accounts – is the norm of its socio-economic world. When analysing interactions between the West and Sierra Leone, the problem that quickly arises is this: many external investors view local customs with resentment, even hostility. In 2015 three German academics wrote an article on how to adapt to the sharing economy. They saw the sharing economy as a problem to overcome, proposing a six-tiered plan to counter its requirements. The “so-called sharing economy is growing rapidly,” they say, which might represent “a serious threat to established industries”.5 Drawing on American-European business models (i.e., IKEA, Zip-car), these authors fear the sharing economy for its propensity to overturn a Western model of commerce, viewing African cultural and business standards as something to avoid.

But this is the wrong approach. Their article represents the West’s lack of understanding of sharing culture as an everyday reality in sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of understanding the sharing economy as a fact of a general West African worldview, these authors and their approach to ubuntu is counterproductive – an attack on what is already an established way of living for millions of West Africans, Sierra Leonians included.

This is dangerous, particularly because Sierra Leone’s case depends on its history as a post-conflict state. The civil war there devastated the West African countryside, infiltrating the wellbeing and livelihoods of thousands of local communities on a mass destructive scale. Over a decade long in length (1991-2002), the conflict’s traumatic effects remain relevant today. It also transformed society in a socio-economic sense. In 2009, researchers studied the post-war effects of the conflict and found that individuals who directly experienced violence displayed “dramatically higher levels of [local] political mobilization and engagement, as well as higher public goods contributions”.6 The war hardened local belief systems and tightened kinship links. With this in mind, external business bodies need to pay attention to the way in which local cultures have experienced a shift in judgement, from surviving the conflict to realising what is truly important – that for local residents inter-community relations and community activism override macro-economic concerns.

The overall lesson then is to recognise local practices, to cooperate with them rather than impose alien systems of thinking. Such an approach will lead to prosperous outcomes. Olayinka Akanle, a leading scholar in Nigerian social thought, makes the case for affirming the deeply embedded links between local cultures and national development. “Culture is a pattern,” says Akanle, that “creates a pattern in any human society”. Because culture is a “totality of ways and manners”, it ultimately has an effect on how people interact with their environments for developmental outcomes. He advocates a more bottom-up approach to policy, concluding that though national policies need to be global compliant, “local [cultures] must be factored into the growth policy and growth equation”.7 When addressing ubuntu in Sierra Leone, Akanle’s argument applies easily to West African manners.

Valuing ubuntu is vital to interactions between outside parties and the sub-Sahara, including (but not exclusive to) Sierra Leone. If Western businesses want to cooperate meaningfully and productively with West African nations, ultimately they must account for this sociological difference: to affirm unique local ways of living and believe in the proficiency of their worldview.

Bibliography

Articles

Akanle, O., ‘The Ligaments of Culture and Development in Nigeria,’ International Journal of Applied Sociology, 2/3 (2012), pp 16-21.

Bellows, J., & Miguel, E., ‘War and local collective action in Sierra Leone,’ Journal of Public Economics, 93 (2009), pp 1144-57.

Brown, R. L., ‘Ebola, War . . . but just two psychiatrists to deal with a nation’s trauma,’ Guardian, 20 January 2017.

Matzler, K., Veider, V., & Kathan, W., ‘Adapting to the Sharing Economy,’ MIT Sloan Management Review, 56/2 (2015), pp 70-77.

Nussbaum, B., ‘African Culture and Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African in America,’ Perspectives, 17/1 (2003), pp 1-12.

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Dillon Whitehead lives in Northern Ireland. His work has featured in ERA magazine. He blogs at The Research Room.

1 The Economist, 433/9173 (2019), pp 40-41.

2 ibid.

3 Quoted in Barbara Nussbaum, ‘African Culture and Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African in America,’ Perspectives, 17/1 (2003), p. 2.

4 Ryan Lenora Brown, ‘Ebola, War . . . but just two psychiatrists to deal with a nation’s trauma,’ Guardian, 20 January 2017.

5 Kurt Matzler et al., ‘Adapting to the Sharing Economy,’ MIT Sloan Management Review, 56/2 (2015), pp 71-2.

7 Olayinka Akanle, ‘The Ligaments of Culture and Development in Nigeria,’ International Journal of Applied Sociology, 2/3 (2012), pp 16-21.

6 John Bellows and Edward Miguel, ‘War and local collective action in Sierra Leone,’ Journal of Public Economics, 93 (2009), p. 1155.

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Dillon Whitehead lives in Northern Ireland. His work has featured in ERA magazine. He blogs at The Research Room."

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