West African colleagues visiting Nairobi asked in awe “why don’t Nairobians greet strangers and each other?” They were referring, not to the usual lighting up of the face with an accompanying Jambo! at the sight of a real or imagined tourist, but to greetings between strangers, especially common in rural areas and many parts of Africa.
A head nod, or simple good morning, afternoon or evening say in a hotel lobby in Niamey, Lagos or Accra to a stranger is often translated as an acknowledgement of the existence of a fellow human being. It also shows you were brought up well, to respect and value others.
A friend from the DR Congo working for an international organisation told me colleagues from Nairobi would walk into the office and proceed to their desks and begin to work. In contrast, every morning, their Senegalese counterparts would greet everyone warmly, enquiring into their health.
This used to be the case, while working in the then Kenya’s provinces. While at the then Coast Province, my boss once said: “People at the coast value greetings. If you meet anyone, even total strangers, greet them as if you were back home in the rural areas. You will be in trouble if you pass a group of people without greeting them and then come back to ask them for directions the way I see Nairobians doing. You should also not wait to be greeted, as a response is not as respectful as initiating a greeting.”
These greetings are usually not good morning, afternoon or evening or a nonchalant “hi’’or ‘‘how are you’’ to be responded to with ‘‘fine,’ even when one is not. They are dialogues, “How are you, your work, family, did you sleep and wake up in peace?”
Sometimes this is followed by questions on names, home villages, and maybe a tracing of ancestral lines. In this way, sometimes one finds they are speaking to a relation.
This is African networking at its finest, collapsing Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter into a 10-minute conversation.
If you are in a hurry, begin the greeting and explain respectfully why you need to go, an important skill as failure to do so results in being late for the next appointment.
African children are taught the importance of greetings from an early age, earning a spanking when they don’t. In some instances, there are specific greetings for age groups. For instance, among the Ga of Ghana, a young person cannot ask an older person “how are you.”
At the coast, I would say “shikamoo” to elder people. I was advised it was originally “shikamuu”, derived from “shika mguu,” “I hold your foot.”
Interestingly, “I touch your feet” was, according to the writings of Prof Abdulaziz Lodhi, part of the Bantu culture of respect for elders. Younger people would kneel or sit or touch the feet of elders “shika mguu” as a mark of respect.
“I touch your feet” is a common expression of respect in West Africa, often used even in phone conversations.
Pouring a little drink on the ground as libation to ancestors, acknowledging their presence through those still living is also common all over Africa.
Having learnt from West Africans and Kenyans at the Coast, I find the cold responses to my respectful greetings to strangers in Nairobi unsettling.
The organisation my friend from the DR Congo works for and many others has diverse staff. Diversity is promoted to provide equal opportunity and sometimes to obey anti-discrimination laws.
Diverse workforces give important competitive advantages like profitable innovation through employees’ unique skills.
Organisations must strengthen cultural intelligence—which is not changing values but adapting to all cultural settings, learning patterns of social interactions and appropriate responses such as found in the powerful, yet simple, greeting.
Greet people and in doing so, recognise their presence, acknowledge their humanity. Greetings lay the foundation for positive and productive relationships.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]