The World Cafe Community

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World Café in Cape Town, South Africa: Reflections on Ubuntu

by Sonja Niederhumer, Graphic Harvester and Facilitator

Ubuntu is a philosophy held by many African traditions that speaks to the interconnectedness of things:

“It is an affirmation that 'all is one' and that every delicate piece of life is profoundly in relationship with every other piece. Everything belongs. No one is an outsider and no one is excluded from experiencing life-giving community.”

On the 19th of September 2011, Cape Town was treated to two World Cafés co-hosted by David Isaacs (co-founder of The World Café), and Melanie Kiley, OD Consultant & Facilitator, who has been at the forefront of Café work in South Africa. It was an opportunity for Cape Townians to explore Ubuntu, and its meaning in their lives and work, through two special World Cafes.


Organisational Development and Human Resource Management Practitioners Café

The morning started with a 3-hour Café designed specifically for Organisational Development and Human Resource management  practitioners. The Café drew 160 participants, and took the group on a journey exploring their deeper burning questions, that over time could really add value to their work.

Participants’ desire to use their work to create positive change in the organizations and systems became very quickly apparent: changing mindsets, helping others understand the choices they have, having the courage to name the elephants, and even question whether they were already a critical mass capable of creating change at scale are some of the insights that emerged.

On a more personal level, participants were able to share elements of their work they struggled with, or were challenged by – most notably, the expectation that they need to produce a positive outcome for their client in each intervention, as opposed to being true to the deeper journey their client is on – which also includes periods of confusion, challenge and being left with not knowing the answers. Since many OD/HR practitioners work alone, hearing that other colleagues struggle with this same dichotomy, generated much energy and sharing in the room. Could they be courageous and vulnerable enough to allow this process with their clients? Could they name the elephants in the room?

The beauty and power of mutual learning and support that comes with being part of a larger community of practice clearly emerged during this session.


Citizenship Café

The afternoon Café was focused on what it meant to be a citizen in South Africa and drew 60 participants from a diverse mix of age groups, gender, culture and backgrounds from Cape Town’s wider community. Although it was a much smaller group, this was a most magical Café.

In the first Café round “What brought you to today’s conversation?”, the passion, heart and laughter of the participants could be clearly felt in the room. This was a question that really mattered! An idea which quickly ignited the room, was that when we share our light with others, our own light is not diminished but grows even stronger as part of a collective. While wandering between the different tables, the graphic harvesting team heard this imagery stick more and more.

Participant responses to the Café question included included: “I care about the solution, so I want to be in the conversation"….“If democracy is what we want, then citizenship is what we need”…..

After the next Café round:  “What is working well in Citizenship in South Africa and will inspire a better world for all?”

participants shared their stories back into the whole group:

“We are very vigilant of our democracy”…. “Embracing each others differences”…. “The spirit of Mandela day and how to make more of this happen”…. “Acknowledging the problems of the past as a basis for acceptance, allowing our constitution to take us forward” …. “ A sense that we can do things”….”Lots of energetic, passionate dialogue”….” Magic moments when we fall in love with each other”….. “A culture of activism – people say what they feel” …. “We all turn out to vote”…. “ We have raw talents, capability, creativity, passion, humour, new ideas, freedom of expression – we punch beyond our weight!” ….

One could literally feel the energy in the room soar as these stories and insights were shared. In South Africa, where we are regularly bombarded with negative news in the media, these stories were like light, changing how we saw our country, our fellow citizens and what the real story of this country and its people is. It’s a place of very many people, from all races, cultures, backgrounds - all passionate about, committed to, and optimistic about increasingly positive change.

The final round explored “What if we recognized our passion and used it to impact society?”. Beautiful ideas were shared here, including: “Spending more time sharing our skills in community and dialogue……” Seeing South Africa with fresh eyes, as a visitor would”….”Pay it forward mentors”…. But perhaps most profoundly, ”…..”Changing the story of South Africa and focusing on the positive”

I did not realize the full impact of this idea until I experienced it in this Café – these positive stories had changed how I thought and felt about my home country, and the fellow citizens I share it with. I walked with a completely new perspective, and feeling seriously positive about our future.  That, to me, is the power of World Café!

The graphic harvesting team

For these two World Cafés, we had an amazing team of four graphic harvesters, Stephen Quirk (a facilitator and talented water colour artist) Brandon Reynolds (a cartoonist working for a local financial and business newspapers), Sonja Niederhumer (a facilitator and now full time graphic harvester) and Xolani Majola. It was very special to have Xolani in the room – a highly talented young artist, who was at the last minute funded for his travel, journeying hours by bus from Grahamstown to come and harvest with us!

For me personally, it was really special to be part of the graphic team at this Café. After using the morning session to experiment with various ways of capturing the Café insights, Stephen was very inspired by the idea of creating a graphic together. So we decided to do this for the afternoon session on citizenship.

It was a really magical experience! We shared insights and ideas that came to us while listening to participants, brainstormed metaphors together, clustered ideas, danced between each other as we all drew on the panel together, each one’s different strengths came to the fore – one was great with colour, other at drawing form, another did phenomenal fonts. It was collaboration in its element, with such beautiful communication, respect, flow and fun. We all learned so much from each other, and as is evident by the graphic - we created something together that we would never have been able to do alone. It really felt like Ubuntu in action!


Chris Arhends, a participant at the two World Cafés, reflects on his experience while overlooking a local lagoon:

“Here, sitting on a stoep (porch) from which fishermen have watched the lagoon for over a hundred years, one is immediately reminded of the profound interconnection between all things. Nature has a way of reminding us of this primordial truth. Ubuntu is what we in Africa call this 'inter-connectedness'. Its an affirmation that 'all is one' and that every delicate piece of life is profoundly in relationship with every other piece. Ubuntu is a declaration that everything belongs and that everyone belongs too. In the world of Ubuntu, there are no exiles. No one is an outsider and no one is excluded from experiencing life-giving community.

I felt this reality at the Cafe you hosted. Very quickly, I sensed the uniting presence of inclusivity, of belonging. Clearly, the World Cafe approach taps into a deeper, more natural instinct that lives in each of us - that we are made for family, for belonging, for conversation and togetherness and that inside this reality - all is possible. There are moments in my life, like when I'm sitting at the lagoon, that I see clearly the oneness that is our true reality. Then the wind blows over it, and my vision is gone. But at the Café, it was there - the picture of a promised feast, the rich banquet of unity that longs to break into our fractured and fragmented and hungry world.

Then, second, the wonderful thing about Ubuntu is that while it honours the collective and draws our attention to the oneness of our common experience, to or common humanity - it doesn't deny the special place each individual has within the whole. We, each of us, has a unique offering to bring and the whole is diminished when our voice isn't heard.

This too, it seems to me is what the Cafe movement seeks to affirm. Every voice is special and when heard, adds a unique and special note to the great chorus that is our collective hymn of possibility.

And so, held in the gentle embrace of intentional community and enlivened by energy of uniqueness - for me, the Cafe experience was a profound homecoming in which, as we began to show up and feel the reality our conversations created, there grew amongst us, the realisation that we were one -  were always one - were ever sisters and brothers of the journey - fisherpeople of the one lagoon.”


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A major thank you goes to The World Café Foundation, and David Isaacs in particular, for so generously giving your time at this event. A big thank you also goes to Louise Van Ryn, Melanie Kiley and their Symphonia team, for sponsoring the event, adding some great South African flair and ensuring the World Café was such a success! And finally to my fellow graphic harvesters: Stephen Quirk, Brandon Reynolds, Xolani Majola. It was a phenomenal day.

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