Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hello, hello!

Greetings are very important in Africa. Whenever you meet someone it's important to ask how they are, how their family is and how their day is going so far. And when it is your turn to say how things are with you, you have to conform to the polite ritualistic responses. ("I slept well and had a good night if you did" or "my day is going well if yours is.") It is very rude (or marks you out as a tourist) to skip or curtail the greetings process or to actually tell the truth, ie mention you had nightmares all night, are suffering from a trapped nerve or you've twisted your ankle. You can of course tell your good friends and family the truth, but only after you've reassured them several times before that all is well. Of course, this means the whole greetings ceremony has to be repeated three or four times over.

Greetings occur at the office, when you pass someone in the street, in the bank queue, at the supermarket and basically anywhere you come across anyone else. If you are going for a walk or a cycle ride, its polite to greet everyone as you pass - and you often hear children cheerily calling "How are you?" as you slog your way, panting, up a steep hill.

The greetings rituals have lost a little in translation to English. If you say "hi" to someone in Harare, they will immediately respond "fine, and you?" - which can come as a bit of a surprise. It works well if you say hello or good morning, but for some reason "hi" has become "hello, how are you and your family this merry morning/afternoon/evening?" to locals, while of course, it just means "hello" to you and I.

With the recent elections, the manner in which you wave hello or goodbye has become a political hot potato. The regular, open handed wave, is seen as a sign of the MDC party, the opposition party (who, by the way, clearly they won last month's election, hence the delay in announcing the results). The ruling party - ZANU PF- 's signature gesture is shaking your fist in threat, and the President is frequently photographed in this classic iron fisted pose.

This can create confusion and misunderstandings amongst expats. Picture myself and a heavily pregnant friend sitting in a car waiting for someone in downtown Harare in June 2000. Suddenly we see people running all around us and next thing we know an angry mob are rocking the car and shaking their fists at us. Scary. Or maybe just a rambunctious invitation to join the ZANU PF party.

A couple of weeks ago I went away for the weekend to stay with friends on a farm on the outskirts of Bindura, a small town north of Harare. As we drove past families walking along the road, we waved at them, and some shook their fists at us. Recalling that the area is a ZANU PF stronghold, we came up with a compromise gesture of hello and goodbye - the old fashioned thumbs up sign. We tried it on the next group of people we passed, and with wide smiles, they returned the thumbs up gesture. Political impasse solved.

If only we could sort out the elections that easily.


Raúl said...

me gusta mucho tu blog lo visito a diario visita tu e mio y si t gusta deja un comentario y nos linkeamos los blogs

Andy said...

We had nothing but warm welcomes in our time there recently. Despite all the turmoil we were always warmly greeted and will definitely be back soon to continue our search for investments.