Friday, January 25, 2008


- Sawubona.

- Yebo.

- Unjani?

- Ngiyaphila. Unjani wena?

- Ngiyaphila nami.

Translated literally, this greeting is:

- We see you (Hello).

- Yes.

- How are you?

- I'm living (I'm fine). How are you?

- I'm also living.

(An alternate response if you're not feeling especially great that day is "Ngikhona" which merely means "I'm present/here")

This short conversation is of tremendous importance in Swaziland, and these words are probably some of the most-used in the Siswati vocabulary. Greetings are a part of life here, essential and inescapable. Greetings are a way of starting a conversation, of showing respect, of finding out how someone is doing, or at the most basic level, an acknowledgement of the person you pass on the street as a fellow human being.

I've often been curious about how often I go through this routine everyday, so yesterday I began to keep count to entertain myself during my morning run. And then paying attention to the people I greeted every day as a matter of routine was so interesting that I kept track throughout the day.

So here is a summary of my greeting exchanges for Thursday, January 24. It will also tell you something about my typical day - if any day can be called typical, since there are always surprises!

6:20 am (recorded after getting back from my run)- 5 family members (Tema*, Make, Gogo, Notsopi, Njabuliso)
- 15 people I met during my run (either on the road or working the adjacent fields)

*My three-year-old sister Tema wins the prize for the most noteworthy greeting of the early morning. It consisted of us yelling back and forth from her door to mine while I was stretching. Not only did she enquire as to how I was doing, but wanted to know the location and well-being of my father, mother, brother, sister and grandmother. This is not unusual for her. She's always particularly interested in knowing where my father is. I can't figure out if this is maybe because I told her he might be coming to visit and she's wondering when this will happen. Or maybe because her own father is a police officer who sends money and clothes and toys for her but has only been to visit her once in the last six months (that I know of).

8:45 am (recorded upon getting to work)- my sister Zinhle
- 2 neighbors in their maize field
- 2 people on the kombi
- Nonhlanhla*
- the post office clerk who I bought stamps from
- the guard at the post office
- Fiston**
- guy with dreads riding on the back of a truck
- Nhlonipho (a co-worker)

*Nonhlahla was the first surprise of the morning. She was a girl on the street that came up to me about a month and a half ago asking for money. I'm always uncomfortable in this situation, because there are always a number of questions I have that can't be answered: Who knows if the person actually needs it or is just trying to take advantage of the umlungu (white person)? Are they actually going to use it to buy food or for bus fare to get home like they're telling me? If I give them money, will I just reinforce the stereotype of the umlungu as an ATM? If I don't give her money, will she go hungry tonight because of my stinginess? etc. But on that day, I gave Nonhlanhla the bus fare she asked for, and then told her I would accompany her to the bus rank since I was on the way there myself. I thought, since her ride home is on me, the least she can do is let me practice my bad Siswati with her. And I thought, this may be a way of establishing a relationship, however short, so she can see me as more than a white person giving handouts. So we walked to the bus station together, and I found out about her family and how far she had gone in school and I told her what I was doing here. And when we parted ways at the busrank, I felt satisfied that hopefully I had led her to challenge some of the ideas she had held about white people. And apparantly the establishing a relationship worked, because yesterday morning I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was Nonhlanhla, who uttered a shy greeting before slipping back into the market crowd.

**Fiston was the second surprise of the morning. I was trotting down the hill to work, already late because of my stop at the post office, when a short guy walking past me said "Bonjour!" and continued walking. He had already passed me by the time the French-ness of his greeting registered in my brain, and I spun around and yelled "Comment ca va?" after him. This resulted in a conversation on the street corner where I learned that he's a Congolais who's been studying computers here for three years. It was wonderful to be able to speak a familiar tongue with someone who has been equally thirsting for someone to converse with in his own language. He remarked several times on how good my French was, and how happy he was to be speaking French again. It put a smile on my face for the day, and reminded me that no matter how inadequate I feel in Siswati, I can speak a language other than English fluently!

9:30 am (work)
- Make Ndzimandze (the HBC coordinator)
- 2 children that had come with Make Ndzi
- Nomcebo (the Peer Education Officer at FBS)
- a woman on the phone

2:10 pm- Sidney and his assistant (computer technicians networking the computers in the Centre, which involved the excitement of crawling around in the ceiling to wire cables through)
- Trevor (fellow SALTer who sometimes drops by FBS at lunchtime)

3:50 pm (before leaving work)- Lungile (the cleaning lady)
- Shane (FBS is ordering T-shirts from his company)

6:03 pm (on arrival at home)
- Primrose (my friend at the internet cafe)
- a random guy trying to pick me up on the street
- Nomsa (a neigbor and cousin)
- 2 women on the road
- my sister Nonhlanhla (who I hadn't seen in the morning because she was already in the fields when I left)

8:07 pm (after supper and prayer)
- Wandile (my brother who just got home from helping the neighborhood herd boy bring the cows in for the night)

So that's 48 individual greetings. I didn't count people I greeted more than once throughout the day. For example, some of my family members I greeted in the morning, then again when I got home from work, and for a third time after evening prayer, when we always go and shake hands and hug everyone at the end, like they do at the end of a Zionist church service. I initiated most of the greetings, but some of them recorded here I merely returned (for example the guy trying to pick me up - it's actually unusual that in this day there was only one. I'll have to do another post sometime on hilarious pick-up lines that I've heard.) I did count people I greeted in the plural "Sanibonani" as whatever number the group consisted of, since the greeting included all of them, and in most cases they all responded.

So now you know the number one rule of PR in Swaziland, and a daily ritual in my life. Just for the record, this morning on my run I counted again, and the number just from people seen on my running route was 24. I think it's because today was sunny and clear, as opposed to yesterday where the weather was kind of yucky and cloudy. So if I had kept going today, I might broken yesterday's record! But if I ever wonder if I'm having an impact in Swaziland, this is at least one small way where I can show friendliness and humanity and a willingness to enter into the "Swazi way". To close to 50 people a day, just by saying "Hello, I see you."

1 comment:

Janna said...

thats really interesting all of your hellos, I find hellos rather perplexing sometimes here in France, wether I should bis, or if they are a "tu" or "vous" person. And they only say hello once usally even if you saw them just quickly in morning then didnt see them again until the end of the day.