Africa has always been a special place to me. I’ve been fortunate to have visited a lot of different countries on the continent for short and longer term stays. And there are a few special customs that I have noticed are common across countries and regions that I think are wonderful. I got to experience all of these again this summer as I traveled with my husband and our kids through South Africa, Botswana and Namibia and I’m trying to hold onto them for as long as I can, until next time…
I’ll get to the actual greeting in a minute but first, let me tell you about….…the pause. Two people meet and exchange a quick hello (in whatever language they may use) and then there is a pause—a few seconds of silence before the greeting continues. I love this pause because I see it as a remarkable show of respect. It says, “I will not hurry on from this exchange.” It says, “You are worth my time.”
There is no simple, “hi” or, “hey” in the African greeting. This is considered inconsiderate traditionally. Instead, there is this at a minimum:
“How are you?”
“I am good how are you.”
“I am good.”
When I lived in rural west Africa, it was something like this:
“Greetings on your morning.”
“Thank you. Greetings on your day, too.”
“Greetings on your health.”
“Thank you. And to yours.”
“Greeting on your work.”
“Thank you. It is good work.”
“How is your family?”
“All good, thanks.”
And it could go on for quite a while longer. I love this routine for the same reason as I do the pause. It shows such interest for each individual and respect for another as a whole person not just as a sounding board for a quick, “hello.” I admit that sometimes, in the moment, these greetings would seem tedious—this American wasn’t always in the mood for such a lengthy exchange—but I miss this custom now that I am back to my often busy, hectic life. It would be so nice if we could all slow down for a few seconds and show others that that we really care.
I had a teacher in sixth grade who taught us all the importance of a good handshake. I don’t remember about anything else I learned that year but I took that lesson with me. Well, Africans have the good handshake down!
There are a lot of different types of handshakes in Africa but the formal handshake in all of the African countries I have visited is a two-handed affair. The right hand does the shaking just as we are used to. The left hand does one of two things. It either makes a fist over the heart (your own, not the person you are greeting) or you hold your own right elbow or forearm. I’ve been told that the custom of using both hands traditionally showed the other person that you were not hiding any weapons (or more symbolically, ill-will) and that the hand over the heart shows sincerity.
This is similar to the handshake but applies when giving something to someone or, especially, when receiving something. A good example is in commerce, when paying for a good or service. The receiver again puts her non-receiving hand on her forearm or elbow. The giver can do same the same, implying generosity or gratitude. Again, a simple exchange becomes more meaningful.
These are all everyday customs in Africa yet foreign to most visitors. To me, they carry such importance. In general, life in Africa is slower and more drenched in tradition that ours. I often long for a bit of this. These simple practices remind me of how much we stand to learn and gain from our travels around the world.