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Letters to Home: Stopping to Say Hello

December 9, 2015

by Sarah Sanbar

Letters to Home: Stopping to Say Hello

Stone Town, Zanzibar sits on top of itself. The city gets its name from the coral rag and limestone blocks its buildings are made of. 

Elaborately carved wooden doors with brass spikes and windows from India and Oman mark every doorway. The architecture — as well as the food, language, and people — is a beautiful blend of Indian, Omani, Portuguese, and Tanganyikan. Alleys twist and turn into and over and around each other so much that you second-guess whether you ever learned how to tell right from left. Directions are useless here. It’s no wonder I was lost. A middle-aged man sat in front of his shop with his son, and greeted me. I remembered my first lesson on Zanzibari culture: greetings are important.

There are a million ways to greet someone in Swahili, and a million ways to respond depending on who you’re talking to, the time of day, where you are, what you’re doing, or where you’re going.

There’s “shikamoo” for someone older than you, as a sign of respect.

Or “hujambo?” for a casual greeting (Mean Girls lied, jambo is grammatically incorrect).

“Mambo” is slang for “What's up?”

“Chei-chei” addresses children.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover the slang and its responses — hali vipi, poa, safi, freshi, bomba, kabisa…

After I gave my elder a polite “Shikamoo” and we went through the rest of the greetings, he asked me if I was lost.

I told him the place I was looking for, and he replied, “Yes, I know it.”

He stood up and I braced myself to memorize the order of rights and lefts. When he started walking, I must have looked confused because he turned around and said, “This way.”

My first instinct was apprehension — should I really follow him? This middle-aged man with grey-speckled stubble and a crooked hat? He tilted his head questioningly at me, with one hand holding his prayer beads and the other resting on his round belly. We started walking.

As we walked, we chatted in my broken Swahili and his broken English — mostly about food. We got to my destination, shook hands, and he went back the way he came.

I pass by Hamid and his son, Faisal, every day as I walked to class. And every day, we go through our three-to-fifteen minute greetings: “How is your day? Your family? The shop? What is the news of your daughter? Have you eaten? How did you sleep?” And they always ended in him inviting me to sit and have tea.

I did the same with everyone I passed, and soon my five-minute walk to class became a thirty-minute one and I was late almost every day. Greetings are important.

Hamid once told me that Zanzibaris greet people because to greet someone is to acknowledge their existence and to open the door to a relationship. Greetings are a remnant of days where people took the time to stop, and talk was not considered a luxury, rather basic decency. Where people weren’t in a rush to go, go, go. Not greeting someone is insulting.

I then began a routine. I greeted the taxi driver, the Maasai shop owner, Raheema calling after her children running in the courtyard to try and get them dressed for school, Hamid and Faisal, the woman cooking chapatti, the man with dreadlocks to his waist, and the man who seemed to be on the phone smoking a cigarette every day at 9am.

Soon, I had a community. I felt safe walking around because I knew the people I lived with. Raheema would hand me her daughter, Ibty, to hold while she ran around the corner to pick up some bread. Doors were left open and unlocked, with family and friends wandering in and out at will. People think nothing of walking you to your destination instead of just giving directions.

I thought about how I walk around my community at CMC. I generally have the mentality “I am here, then I am there. I will go from Gov to Econ.” The time in between is usually meaningless. I walk, lost in my thoughts, occasionally saying hi to people I know and suggesting we get lunch some time. To stop and have a conversation with someone seems like a luxury — we’re important, busy students with things to do. To walk a lost parent from Bauer to Kravis would be unheard of.

Yet being in Zanzibar showed me that in doing so, I rob myself of the opportunity to build a relationship. By rushing to and from class or other activities, I lose the ability to be vulnerable and engage with someone. I forgo the chance to build a community.

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