I See You

How many times have we asked someone “How are you?” hoping that we don’t get more than a one-word response such as “Fine” or “Good”? How often do we just continue to walk on and not stop to acknowledge the person answering—or perhaps asking—the question, just so we’ll be able to continue with whatever we were doing with minimal disruption.  

For me, there is a depth of validation for each other as human beings that is missing in our current world. 

I have often wondered how other cultures greet each other. I found that among the tribes of northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting that is equivalent to “hello” in English is the expression “Sawa Bona.” It means, “I see you,” as if to say, “I respect and acknowledge you for who you are.” If you are a member of one of the tribes you might reply, “Sikbona,” which means, “I am here,” as if to say, “When you see me, you bring me into existence.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me I do not exist. 

This meaning, implicit in the language, is part of the spirit of ubuntu, a frame of mind prevalent among native peoples in sub-Saharan Africa. The word ubuntu stems from the folk saying, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which, from Zulu, literally translates as “A person is a person because of other people.” If you grow up with this perspective, your identity is based upon the fact that you are seen; that the people around you respect and acknowledge you as a person. 

During the last few years in South Africa, many corporations have begun to employ managers who were raised in the tribal regions. The ubuntu ethic often clashes subtly with the culture of those corporations. In an office, for instance, it’s perfectly normal to pass someone in the hall, while preoccupied, and not greet them. This would be worse than a sign of disrespect under the ubuntu ethic; it would imply that you felt that person did not exist. 

An internal consultant who had been raised in a rural village became visibly upset after a meeting where nothing much had seemed to happen. When a project in which he’d played a key part came up for discussion, his role was not mentioned or acknowledged. Asked later why it had bothered him so much, he said, “You don’t understand. When they spoke about the project, they did not say my name. They did not make me a person.”

Next time you are asked “How are you?” or you ask someone this question, stop, look them in the eye, and give an answer other than “Fine”. Let’s practice the “Sawa Bona” tradition a little bit more. 


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