teaching, learning and living around the world
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.