You may be intrigued, as I was, to learn how members of the northern Natal tribes of South Africa greet one another. They say “Sawa bona,” which means: “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona,” which means “I am here to be seen.”
It is eye-opening to realize how attuned to human nature so-called primitive peoples can be, in this case to the powerful human need for validation. Members of these tribes go about their day receiving personal acknowledgment from everyone they meet, a recognition of the “other” and of the connection they share as human beings.
Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) provides a dramatic example of this human connection in his superb book The Lost World of the Kalahari, where a lone Bushman surprised in the African wild responds to a greeting by exclaiming: “Good day! I have been dead, but now that you have come, I live again.”
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Imagine the stir one would create by substituting this response to the Western "How're you doing?" instead of the expected automatic response of "Fine. And you?" I'm thinking of trying it.
THESE REFLECTIONS were sparked by an email I got recently from a friend who has claimed his heritage by coming to live in the Promised Land with the hope and expectation of being treated as an equal among equals, or at least with a measure of consideration. He has found that this often doesn’t happen, and there is really no answer except education, education, and more education of children from the earliest age by parents and teachers who are themselves exemplars of good public behavior.
“A phenomenon which I noticed while living in England,” he began, “happened so infrequently that it did not bother me, but after I came to live in Israel, it became more frequent. It has now increased to such an extent that I am getting concerned.
“What is it? I am becoming invisible. I go into shops and talk to the assistant. Another person starts talking to the same assistant – clearly they do not see me at all.
“I ride a bicycle in Jerusalem, and cars do not see me. Drivers come very close and cut across me. As I was indicating a leftturn on a narrow one-way street, a car tried to overtake me. It was a near-miss.
“Even when I’m in my car, it seems I’m invisible to other vehicles, which just pull out in front of me. The strange part is that when the lights turn green and I am slow to move, they do see me and tell me so in no uncertain manner.
“I am becoming most concerned about my invisibility, so should you see me and recognize me, please give me a wave.”
Moved by the pathos of this last remark, its humor notwithstanding, my instinctive reaction to this friend’s plaint is that he isn’t so much invisible to those obtrusive individuals he meets in stores and on the roads as hidden by the enormous balloons of their egos, which obscure anyone else’s needs and, indeed, presence but their own – which probably comes to the same thing as rendering everyone else invisible.
And pricking those ego-balloons in a constructive way may be impossible without inviting further insult – so we are back to hoping and trusting that education of the young in ethics and values will achieve what bellyaching cannot.
MY OWN pet peeve is a scenario I have experienced more than once: I am out with a friend when someone who is known to that friend but unknown to me comes up and begins a conversation. The two proceed to chat for long minutes whilst I, unintroduced and feeling like an idiot, shift from one foot to the other, evince a sudden deep interest in my surroundings, or simply move away and wait with a measure of discomfort for the conversation to finish.
It would be enough for my friend to simply introduce me to the new arrival and then proceed as above. There would be no need for me to join in their exchange; the simple fact of acknowledging my existence to the new person would include me in the new group, eligible to contribute to the conversation if I chose. Without this acknowledgment, I am invisible and thus barred from doing so.
Suppose my friend is in the embarrassing position of being acquainted with the other person but not remembering their name? In such a situation, I would introduce the friend whose name I do remember, and consider the obligation half-fulfilled.
ONE GROUP of people who are unjustly made to feel invisible are the disabled. When they are confined to a wheelchair or otherwise limited in functioning, those who come in contact with them – including, regrettably, medical personnel – often talk over their heads to the person accompanying them, referring to the subject of the conversation in the third person, as if they were not present. Invisible, indeed.
A close friend of mine who is losing her sight described her husband being told in the eye clinic to “put her here... and sit her down there.” And, she protested energetically, “They know my name!” When a security guard directed her husband to “take her to that building over there,” she couldn’t restrain herself, and retorted: “‘Her’ wishes you a good day!” My friend, who is in command of all her faculties, called this treatment “adding insult to injury.”
The feeling of isolation is more extreme in the blind community, she explained, and needs to be lightened, not deepened. “I feel like telling people: ‘Something physical has changed in my body, but I haven’t changed. Relate to me as you would to anyone else.’” I was glad to learn that new doctors are now receiving “bedside manner” training – which they need to apply also to their elderly patients, who often suffer the indignity of being rendered “invisible” through being addressed in the third person.
YOU’VE LIKELY come across individuals who may be interesting, educated and articulate but cannot stop showing off their knowledge, dominating any gathering and hardly letting anyone else get a word in. You wouldn’t think such people suffer from any kind of inferiority complex – more likely the opposite – but, incredibly, what haunts them is the nagging sense of being invisible if they are not constantly drawing attention to themselves.
I have met people like this, and felt like telling them (though I never did): “Calm down. You don’t have to prove your worth all the time. Believe me, you won’t disappear from view!”
I BEGAN by quoting the Bushman’s response to being greeted as he hunted alone in the South African wild, but omitted the greeting itself, as rendered by van der Post, who tracked down the Bushman in the 1950s.
Having read The Lost World of the Kalahari a great many years ago, what etched itself into my memory – perhaps because what the Bushman and I share in common is our height, about five feet – is van der Post’s observation that the only thing the Bushman was “raw and vulnerable” about was his size, stemming from his fear of invisibility set against the vast scale of his desert habitat. In other parts of the book, his extreme hospitality is noted.
Thus the traditional and proper way to greet a Bushman, should you ever meet one, is: “Good day! I saw you looming from afar, and I am dying of hunger.”