Eniola Ajao

On Ubuntu

Last summer, I sat quietly inside the Amherst Regional Middle School Auditorium listening to sixth graders present solutions to current issues. They had just finished a unit on Social Activism. Family, friends and community members gathered to hear them speak. A young girl approached the microphone. She was anxious, but without reason. The crowd was supportive of her before she uttered her first sentence. Slowly, she made her case about why our town’s name should be changed from Amherst to Ubuntu. Ubuntu, she explained, is the Swahili word for “human-ness,” or, as she put it, “I am because you are.” Her proposal was met with cheers and applause.

In 2008, religious leader Joe John Sark said, "To have a place named after General Amherst would be like having a city in Jerusalem named after Adolf Hitler...it's disgusting." At this moment and in this auditorium the last thing I felt was disgust.

Though this diverse, community-oriented town — composed of authors, jazz musicians, activists, poets, professors, and scholars — is named after Jeffrey Amherst, a British commander infamous for committing genocide against the Native Americans by distributing blankets infected with smallpox, we have never let it define us.

When I first moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, from Abuja, Nigeria, years ago, I was shocked by the level of kindness and courage I witnessed on a daily basis, a stark difference from the interactions I encountered in the city, where once I helped my neighbor gather her groceries after a pickpocket violently snatched her purse from her.

As I sat in that auditorium, I realized the impact that my town has had on me. The process of learning to be a thoughtful, caring citizen of the world occurred on a daily basis-- in line at Trader Joe's where the cashier offers me a chocolate bar free of charge, or when I witness 'meter-fairies' put coins in other people's parking meters. These people, starting with that brave girl in the auditorium have guided and shaped my thinking on ethical decision making. Everyday they choose kindness and let courage guide their decisions. They have taught me, that when it comes to making ethical decisions and living an ethical life, one should be the person they want to meet.

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