Ubuntu – I am because we are

about Jean-Pierre Hallet

One day, Jean-Pierre proposed a game to the kids of the clan. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told them that who ever got there first won the sweet contents. When it was time to run, Jean-Pierre noticed that they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that, since one could have had all the fruits for themselves, they said: Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad? Ubuntu in the Xhosa culture means “I am because we are”.

Jean-Pierre Hallet is internationally renowned as an africanist, ethnologist, sociologist, humanitarian, agronomist, naturalist, author, lecturer, explorer, photographer, cinematographer, artist, African art authority and collector, and death-defying adventurer. He was best known and revered, however, as the world authority on the culture, languages, and history of African pygmies in general and the Ituri Rainforest Efé clan of the Bambuti pygmies in particular.

One of the images that best represents the wonderful concept of Ubuntu is from the 1960’s, and is known as Osani, The Circle Game. Shot by Jean-Pierre, it became famous thanks to Susan Fassberg who saw it, printed one-inch square in a magazine. It was 1985 and she was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, reading. She asked to use the phone. Calling the magazine editor, she sought out the photographer and met him the following week. “Bowled over by the man and his obsessive high regard and affection for these people, I also loved his photography! Of all his wonderful images, this photo was my favorite. It’s a gentle reminder to stay in touch with the basics,” said Susan, who then explains the subject of the photo:

“The Circle Game is simple. Kids start with their feet touching and then take turns naming circular objects, concepts and natural cycles: Oranges, eyeballs, the sun… or the cycles of the moon, a full pregnancy, or the changing of the seasons. When a player runs out of circular or cyclical concepts they leave the group, until finally one wise and creative child remains. It is said that child will live long and prosper. Osani is the Efé word for Love”.

Jean-Pierre’s knowledge, love, and deep respect for the pygmies resulted in his writing, advocating for, and obtaining an official acceptance of his “Declaration of Emancipation” for the endangered Efé pygmies of the Ituri Forest, Zaire in 1957. His humanitarian work was declared, also in 1957, to be an “Ethnological Revolution, the most remarkable social achievement of recent years” by the Press Africaine.

Jean-Pierre’s dedication to this cause was compellingly expressed in his books, in over 30 articles, and in numerous lectures, TV and radio interviews. He wrote, produced and directed a feature documentary film titled “Pygmies” in 1973, and in 1975 produced two educational films for the Encyclopedia Britannica on Efé life and culture. He died on January 1, 2004, at the age of 76.


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