What is Home?

Wandile is a One Young World Ambassador and Founder & CEO of Ubuntu Design Group, a company that exists to solve architectural design and financial inclusion problems of low-income communities around the world.

The pattern of my life revolves around the question: “What is home?”.

Recently I decided to do a social media experiment to see how people define home and reading through the answers I found it fascinating that, while each person seemed to have their own definition, the answers could be split into the categories of: home as loved ones, feelings, or heritage and the past. Out of 90 participants, not a single one said anything about the physical building in which they grew up.

The fact that none of the participants immediately connected the feeling of home with a building was particularly fascinating to me since I’ve spent a significant part of my life studying architecture; inventing and creating with the hope that buildings can facilitate the experiences that make up a home.

A traveler from a young age, I was born in South Africa, went to high school in Zimbabwe, and attended college in U.S. Even before I reached my teenage years I had already moved from one dilapidated township to another- thirteen times. Growing up, the one thing my siblings and I prayed for and looked forward to every day was to have a Home, a dignified place to call our own. Subconsciously perhaps, yet undeniably, the search for “home” became a theme for my life, driving me to pursue answers in Architecture at Andrews University in Michigan. Now, I lead an organization that aims to design and build sustainable houses for people living in low-income communities.

Growing up in a shanty town of Durban, South Africa made me realize the importance of structure in making a home. Every day we lived on the edge, hoping it wouldn’t rain because if it did, not only would we have water leaking into our beds, it also meant being reasonably scared that the house would fall on us. The lack of safe and adequate structure meant we spent more time stressing and working towards getting a dignified place to call home, rather than spending quality time as a family.  Having a home that stands at the same angle as the leaning tower of Pisa made me pinky promise to myself to one day go back to my community and give other children the experience of home that I never had.

Though it made for a less-than-comfortable childhood, this experience opened my eyes to the importance structure plays in creating a home-like atmosphere, which in turn inspired the founding of Ubuntu Design Group, an organization that partners with low-income communities to design and build dignified housing that can facilitate an experience of comfort, love, and fellowship.  

I’d argue that the possible explanation why my social media friends didn’t mention any house or building in their experience of home is that for those who have grown up in functional houses, buildings intentionally designed with the feeling of “home” in mind, it is easy to take the structures which enabled it to happen for granted. However, this commodity is not available to low-income families in many parts of the world. And so while it might not be the first thought for many, I can testify from my experience that the structure of house is integral to the process of forming “home”.  

There’s a lot of truth in the popular African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Community forms a pivotal part of who we are as humans, and how our identities are so formatively tied up in those of the people around us. This idea is reflected in the concept of Ubuntu, a Bantu word meaning, “I am because we are.” and can be traced back to a Zulu proverb that says, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which means a person is a person because of other people. In other words, we are who we are because of others around us, and we affirm our humanity when we acknowledge the humanity of others.

I grew up in a community that was powered by this ideal and these principles have been ingrained in me, have become a part of who I am, and play an important role in whatever  I do—from playing soccer to designing architecture. The Ubuntu way of thinking and living made us close both as family and as a community; though the structure of the buildings were disastrous, through this strong sense of community togetherness we were able to create a resilient atmosphere of Home. Therefore, our design mission is based on the principle that if apartheid architecture could segregate and oppress communities, community-led “Ubuntu” architecture design can liberate and enable communities. In Ubuntu Design Group we build homes that restore and affirm the dignity of  low- income communities and believe this can be applied to other places.

I guess that in a selfish way I’m looking to build the home I never had, to fulfill that urge that’s never left by doing for others what my family always wanted. But the motivation behind Ubuntu Design Group has grown to include a greater goal—to spread the message of Ubuntu to heal the architectural wounds left by Apartheid in the beautiful land of South Africa, but also other places all over the world that have been subjected to inhumane conditions inherited from history and misfortune.

Learn more about Wandile's work here