Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Karibu SANA — You are SO welcome!

I had the privilege of ushering in the new year with a large chunk of my family- my dad, stepmom and two sisters. We spent one week in Eastern Congo and one week in Zanzibar. As we reflected on our time together here in Africa, the culture of welcoming visitors came up again and again. We all agreed that both in Congo and Zanzibar we felt karibu sana– so welcomed.

My family arrived at the Rwanda-Congo border on a cold and rainy evening- leaving the entire day for me to restlessly await their arrival. I spent the afternoon on the corner telling Mado and the kids all about my family. When one of the street kids jokingly asked if he could marry one of my sisters I said, “ATTENTION! I expect you to really respect my family and give them a WARM welcome to Goma!!! You will not treat them like just ANYBODY! I really want you to greet them properly!! I expect you to say- KARIBU SANA! KARIBU GOMA! And that will be that!!” And although I expressed my highest of high expectations, I fully expected the kids to be wild and crazy and ask my family for money and bread just like they do everyone else.

Around 5pm, off to the border I went. After smiles, hugs, paperwork and a small bribe to the customs lady- I explained to my family that despite their fatigue, hunger and need for a toilet- we HAD to pass by the corner where my street friends sit. When we pulled up in the rain with all the windows down, our car was surrounded by all the kids shouting “Karibu!! Karibu!!! Karibu Goma!!!” Amidst many high fives, Mado also reached in to shake everyone’s hand.  After many greetings, we drove away to a chorus of “Uende mzuri! Uende bien!” (Go well, go well!) No begging, no shenanigans. It just might have been one of the most rowdy and beautiful greetings I’ve ever witnessed.

The next day we visited Lycee Amani, an all girls’ secondary Catholic school. The sisters gave us all BIG hugs, showed us into the sitting room where they offered us tea, bananas, yogurt and peanuts.  We sat for an hour, chatting in a mix of Swahili, French, English and laughter.  Then during the tour of the school grounds, I told them that the next day was my dad’s birthday.  They proceeded to pull me aside and interrogate me with whispers of, “Well, what are you going to cook for your father tomorrow?!”

I had no clue! I thought maybe a card with a nice note would suffice… but cooking?! I told them, “I don’t know! We’re going to Kibututu tomorrow so I don’t know if I’ll be able to cook! I don’t even really know HOW to cook!”  This was followed by lots of dramatic sighs, tisk-tisking, finger wagging and expressions of utter distress at my completely UNacceptable response.

At the end of the school tour, we gave the sisters some soccer balls, pumps, and four laptops donated by our mutual friend Kabahita. Then the sisters pulled me aside again, and presented me with two bags full of boiled corn, fresh mangoes and grilled peanuts. Then they said, “You must eat well tomorrow to celebrate! And pass by here before you leave in the morning and we will have a birthday cake for your dad!” Yowzah! Talk about a WARM welcome from the sisters!

And so it went on like this.

At the Mugunga School, the director, four teachers and about 60 kids made the voyage  out to the school to greet us even though it was in the midst of their vacation. In Kiwanja the current managers of CEDERU, Marcia’s peace corps project, made a trip to the office to greet us, chat, and give Marcia contact information for several old friends.  In Kibututu, a 73 year old man named Haji Juma welcomed us into both of his homes- giving us tea and coffee upon arrival, and flowers from his garden for our departure.  In Rutshuru, the Catholic priests put us up at their guest house, welcomed us to their dinner table, and even offered us communion at church in the morning! (We are not Catholic, so that last one was a BIG deal.)

I’ve thought a lot about how I’ve been treated here in Congo… and how I’ve treated foreigners in America.  I have been so warmly welcomed here… and it makes me ask myself- during my time in the States do I do enough to make foreigners feel welcomed?  How DO we welcome people in the United States? What are our passing greetings?  What does an invitation to our home require?

A few years back I read a short editorial in the Washington Post, written by a middle aged, white, Arlingtonian. He expressed his disdain at the fact that every time he went to a nearby 7-11, there were “too many” hispanic day laborers waiting around for work. He described how uncomfortable it made him to be surrounded by a foreign language, how unnerving it was to face this several times a week, in the heart of his own neighborhood.

In America, just like in Congo, just like everywhere- it’s SCARY when you don’t really know people. And there is nowhere in the world where EVERYONE walks down the street on sunny days sharing smiles, love and happiness.  There are plenty of unwelcoming people, mean people, rude people, and plenty of TFAs. (You can ask my dad what a TFA is.) So let’s not get carried away with the idea that everyone in all of Congo, or Africa for that matter- is smiley, warm and welcoming. That just isn’t true.  But I think the warm and hearty welcome that my family and I experienced over and over stems from a culture of lengthy greetings… which allows us to really get to know each other.

People in every country, town and village all over the world have their own culture, language, and habits. We all have our own way of exchanging greetings and we decide if and how we will welcome foreigners. They might be passers by, foreign exchange students, or refugees…

Will we speak?
Will we greet?
Will we welcome them?
Will we choose to get to know them?

What if we don’t?
What if we do?

During my time in Congo, I’ve begun to so deeply appreciate what it means to KNOW people.  To speak, greet, welcome, and really KNOW people. I’ve grown to absolutely adore Swahili greetings.  In a time conscious America, these exchanges might seem repetitive, excessive, and certainly too LONG! But here, the clock just doesn’t matter that much.

An everyday passing greeting usually involves a steady stream of questions and answers: Hello! How are you? Did you sleep well? How is your morning? Really, are you well? How are your parents? Your children? Really, are they well?  How is your work? Really, is it going well? I’m so (happy/sad/concerned) for you! Where are you headed now? I hope to see you soon! I’m sure God will bless you. Go WELL!

And everyday that passes, I have this conversation at least 10 or 15 times. And every evening when I return home I have the privilege of feeling like there is a community of people who genuinely care about my well being. Through our greetings we remind each other of what matters most in life- family, health, empathy and a never ending appreciation for all of the blessings we receive.  I just love that.

I love that I get to pass time sharing these greetings, and thinking about these things, instead of rushing from place to place… or sitting in front of a tv watching Jersey Shores.  Life without rushing, life without television or shopping malls, life without regular electricity or regular water, life WITH these lengthy greetings… really allows you to focus on what matters- and inevitably leaves you feeling enriched.

You have a lot less STUFF,
yet you feel so much richer.

Maybe it’s just the greetings.
Maybe it’s bigger than that.

Either way, I like it.

And wherever I go, whoever I encounter, no matter how big the rush- I will strive to continue practicing the warm and welcoming ways that I’ve learned here.

So here’s to you, Mother Africa! Thanks for your warm welcome into 2011, for teaching me how to greet and get to know people, and for reminding us all to reflect on what matters the most in our lives- family, health, empathy and all of the blessings we receive.



8 comments on “Karibu SANA — You are SO welcome!

  1. Sally Reams
    January 14, 2011

    Sara, when I came to Kinshasa I felt welcomed too, by more than the Americans at the school – also by Mama Godlieve, Mama Esther, Chenwa (?) the folks at the restaurant and orphanage and the yacht club and other places. I remember your gardener made a large trellis of flowers over the doorway to your apartment to welcome us.

    Sara, you are an easy one to welcome!

    After reading this, I will try to be more welcoming. Our culture teaches us to be in a hurry. But since I have retired I have definitely changed pace and try to enjoy things more and greet people more – lingering after golf events or watercolor class etc. In stores I have had many clerks apologize for taking extra time for something or another and I always say – don’t worry I am not at all in a hurry and it is not a problem – and they always smile and say tks!!

  2. Lonnie Rich
    January 14, 2011

    Ditto squared.

    Since returning home, I have told so many people how welcoming and generous the Congolese are. As Sara has said a good part of that related to how they spend their time in their greetings and not with TV or general busy-ness. Another part of our positive reception had to do with the fact that Sara spoke fluent Swahili and had established relationships with so many people (ex-pats, professionals, locals, street kids) who genuinely loved her and the fact that she was there working with teachers. It also didn’t hurt that I spoke a little Swahili (enough to joke with the nuns) and that Marcia was fluent in Swahili and French.

    Another reason for our warm reception was simply the fact that Sara’s family had come to visit her in Congo. Almost unheard of! The Polish priest we met in Ruhchuru had been there nearly 30 years and his family had never come to visit. We heard that more than once.

    Other observations:

    Congo has more than its share of violence. When I got home, I learned about the 30 women raped several hundred miles from where we were, but I also learned that 6 people in Tucson had been murdered by one of our own. Not once in Congo did I have even a twinge of anxiety about my safety. I felt completely safe in the full enbrace of Sara’s friends.

    The badabadas (roads) are so bad that after travel of any distance you feel completely pummelled after jolting around your vehicle. You just accept that you must roll with the punches.

    While the standard of living is radically different, there seemed to be plenty of the necessities — food, clothing, shelter. Everyone in Congo has a cell phone; many have two, since there are two major service providers.

    More later. Dad

  3. Stephie
    January 14, 2011

    This post really made me think about how I greet people and are greeted by others. I notice that when I get to work every morning my co-workers and I will exchange the very common “Good morning, how are you, how was your night/weekend, what are your plans for tonight/this weekend?” And there are times where I feel like it is so repetitive telling them every morning, “Good morning to you too, yes I am fine, this weekend will be nice/relaxing/busy, etc” But then I thought about it, and if no one said anything to me and I just came into work and did not exchange any words at all- I would feel sad! I would feel isolated in the office, and probably wouldn’t enjoy being here very much. Your post made me re-evaluate these exchanges I have with my co-workers. I should look at it less as a repetitive conversation, but more like you said, it’s a way to get to know them better. Thanks for bringing up this important lesson!
    ❤ Stephie

  4. Courtney
    January 14, 2011


    I must admit that when I moved to the South it was a huge culture shock despite the small distance between Alexandria and Durham NC. Here everyone has polite conversations no matter where you are, in line at the grocery store, at the playground, or passing a stranger on the street. At first I was a little weirded out. Why in the world are these strangers talking to me, leave me alone, I’m minding my own business. Growing up near a big city, I was always told not to talk to strangers and keep to myself. This isn’t the case here. Everyone talks, and it really is wonderful. I’ve become accustom to it now. I don’t think twice about wishing another runner a good morning (head phones or not) with a big smile, chatting up the latest celeb gossip at the grocery store, or talking about Sam on the playground. When we go home I’ll often get a few strange looks from people when I greet them. To ease them into it I usually lay on a southern twang and they’ll indulge me for a few minutes. They may go back to their friends and say something negative about the Southern Chatterbox in line at the Starbucks, but I hope in a small way I’ve made their day a little bit better. The South really is a welcoming place and I can’t imagine raising a family anywhere else.

  5. Maureen
    January 14, 2011

    This really makes me think of the everyday interactions I have with other people and the genuine lack of interest that most people harbor. They typical question of “Hey, how are you,” isn’t really a question at all, because some tend to walk away before even getting an answer. Our culture is so rapid and on the go, that people take very little time for others.

    This is a great reminder that I myself also need to slow down and take in conversations/greetings as more than just mere and trivial.

  6. Ruth Brannigan
    January 14, 2011

    My dear, dear, most wonderful friend, and fellow ADK sister, Sara:
    How are you doing this bright and bountiful day?

    I wanted to extend a warm greeting here as well as a follow-up to your message! I think about you and your mission so frequently and am so thrilled you are living it out loud!!! When Marcia and I have gone on retreat we trade our noisy lives for quiet ones; but, in return we have very boisterous spiritual experiences. It sounds to me that you are having both. How rewarding.

    I would love for my students to have some sort of an exchange with your friends. Is that possible? Let me know and I promise to color within the lines and make it happen. Also, remember, your ADK sisters are waiting to hear what they can do to suuport you.
    Go for it, sista!
    Ruth and Scoop

  7. Marcia
    January 14, 2011

    Kweli na kabisa na amen. Bien dit!

  8. Irene
    January 15, 2011

    Thanks Sara. Thoroughly enjoy your blog. Hope to hug you in person in March or April on our break.

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2011 by in humanities, travel.
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