When I was jogging in New York City last week, the day after I got back from Africa, I instinctively waved to the other joggers passing me by and offered a friendly greeting. When I was met with downcast stares or ignored entirely, I picked up my speed and dejectedly ran away. I ran every day after I was done teaching at Eenhana Secondary School in Eenhana, Namibia, and there were many people in the village that I said “hi” to along my jog. Greetings weren’t just a wide-scale formality; they were genuine forms of reaching out to friends, neighbors, and strangers, and forgoing a greeting to someone you passed along the way was seen as rude and insulting.
While it was definitely nice to be back in America after two and a half months living and teaching in Africa, I had a hard time re-adjusting to the somewhat more detached social norms of the U.S., and I missed the pure and simple ties I formed with my host family and the daily rituals of greetings:
“Wa uhala po meme” How is the day, dear? (In Oshivambo, the dominant language of northern Namibia).
“Nawa tu?” Really?
“Ehee” Yes, really!
The person who was asked the question would repeat the dialogue in reverse, then both would smile, wave, and continue on until the next person to be greeted came along. I learned this exchange in Oshivambo and earned countless smiles and many new Namibian friends this way. It is an instant icebreaker and helped me become integrated into my village. In contrast, it seems only during the first week of freshman year at Harvard is it truly socially acceptable to sit down in the dining hall at a table full of unfamiliar people and have a conversation.
Not only did I miss the friendly chatter of Namibians, but I also thought constantly about my host mom, the kids, and teachers at school. I couldn’t believe how close I had become to these people so quickly. In just two months, my host mom accepted me as “forever a member of the Uuyumba family” and learners shared with me stories and secrets they had not told anyone before. Relationships were based solely on conversations you shared, genuinely listening to the other person’s needs and wants, and doing things for someone because you sincerely wanted to help—with no expectations or ulterior motives. I was invited to a wedding of a couple I had never met before, simply because they believed if there was a party, everyone should share in the celebration. There was no detectable social hierarchy, as everyone seemed to be included in all social gatherings. Distant cousins were supported by families, friends helped friends pay their bills without thinking of getting their money back, and the principal at my school housed two AIDS orphans in addition to her own children. When I asked my host mom why everyone was so willing to help friends and strangers, she responded “In Africa, we share. That’s how we survive.”
In America, relationships can be transient or formed to meet certain needs or goals. Someone may help someone out with the expectation that this connection will offer rewards later on. It is sometimes hard to discern the true value of a relationship through texts, strategic Facebook posts, and fodder that sticks to one topic of conversation without really reaching depth.
Obviously, not every relationship formed is like this, and not every friendship is made with other intentions. However, the unspoken rules of social life in the states (and especially at Harvard) can sometimes make one question the reliability and sincerity of some relationships.
Though the value of networking and connections are not to be discounted, perhaps we should also try a bit of the “African way” by greeting acquaintances and strangers, not just those in our inner circle. As the start of the new school year unfolds, we all have the opportunity to be “freshman” again. Hopefully I’ll have more luck on the streets of Cambridge and the dining halls of Harvard than in New York City. As they say in Eenhana, “kala po nawa.” Stay well.
Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.