hello

“Hello.”

And then a big smile and a wave.

I just loved it. Just loved it. My oldest daughter used to walk around greeting everyone in the streets. It doesn’t matter who they were. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know them. She just smiled and waved, and said hello. We do that in Africa. Walk around like a bunch of happy-clappies waving and greeting and smiling at people we don’t know.

It made me feel part of something bigger. Just knowing that they are my people. We are one big family. Really. You should see how we greet each other. Not just a little nod of the head or lifting of the eyebrow. No, not us crazy Africans. We go all out. We say hello as if it is our best friend that we haven’t seen for years. The long lost brother. The sister that went to college. The Biblical son returning. “How are you?” “I’m great thanks! And you?” “Great! Cheers!” Crazy Africans.

We have enough shit going on in Africa to enjoy the little things like greeting each other on the streets. Just acknowledging that it’s okay. That we are okay. That we are somehow connected.

It didn’t matter where I was in Africa. I can be walking in the streets in Zimbabwe and people will greet me and I will greet them – with a smile. I’ll sit in a bar in Zambia and someone will walk over and start talking to me. Asking questions about where I’m from and what I’m doing in Lusaka or do I want another beer. “Hey buddy, why don’t you come with us to the Green Frog?” Aah… The Green Frog. Dancing and drinking with people I’ve never met and will most likely never see again. The market in Bamako (Mali) and the guy walking with me to show me around and help me out with the French spoken at the stalls. Guess what. He didn’t want to get paid for it. He just wanted to show me his town and maybe have a beer with me.

It used to drive my wife crazy. I’ll walk into a bar and “check out the scene”. Searching for my next victim… I mean “friend”. Anyone that’s alone. And I’ll start talking to them. It is especially good when it is a foreigner. Just talk and hear their stories. Where they are from, how is their mom and dad, what they are doing over here, what beer do they want. You name it and I’ll talk about it. I’ve heard some great stories thanks to these strangers. And then we’ll say goodbye and never talk again. But I’ll remember them and I hope they’ll remember me. The crazy guy from Africa. They were African for a day or two. One of us. All of us. And it started with a simple “hello”.

And I miss that.

I miss the warmth. The sense of humanity. The acknowledgement of each other. The small moments of happiness. The connection of life and living.

And I miss seeing my daughters do that.

My oldest daughter was just a few years old when we moved over to the UK. She still walked around greeting everyone. Thank God we stayed in a small village of about 2,000 people. They got to know her. The crazy African kid who greets everyone. At first people stared at her and then slowly looked up at us parent, thinking that she must be a “special needs” kid. Some even gave us the “shame, poor you” look. Feeling sorry for these parents with the backward kid. But the little one didn’t care. She just kept on greeting.

And slowly but surely she won them over. The older people were the first to come around to her way of thinking. They loved seeing her greeting and waving at them. Shocked at first and then just a huge smile thanks to this skinny little girl with the big eyes and even bigger smile. And the looks they gave us parents – that was just all that was needed for us to know that we were okay as parents. They would look at us and greet us as well. With a big smile and a thank you in their eyes. And sometimes a little “What a nice little girl” comment to go with that.

My youngest one – born in the UK with the American accent (but South African passport)? Well, I don’t know if it is in our blood. But she greets people. She’ll stop to talk to people as we walk to the park. Especially if they have a baby or a dog. “Isn’t she cute dad?” Me? “Hi, sorry about that. She just loves babies.”

When did I lose my “hello”?

I really can’t say. I don’t know when it happened. Maybe it was the continuous looks I got in the UK. Or the stares in the US. Maybe I started switching off after too many blank returns and rejections. But I don’t really greet strangers anymore. And I miss that.

We don’t accept peple for who they are anymore. We are too scared. Scared shitless. We reject people for who we think they might be.

I am not crazy. I am not a rapist. I am not a child molester. I am not a sex offender. I am not a maniac. I am not a murderer. I’m not a mugger. I am just me. Living a life and trying to be as good as what I can be. I live Ubuntu. But Ubuntu isn’t always around.

Must I wear a banner around my neck to say who I am not?

I see little kids and sad grown-ups around me. All I want to do is stop for a minute and ask them how they are. Maybe give the little one a hug and a kiss. Tell them that the world will be okay. Just go and be a kid and enjoy going down the slide for a while. Swing low and swing high. Go around and around on the merry-go-round. It a bit like life. But without the worries that go with it.

But I can’t. Because of others.

I have to pick my battles. Be friendly to the person behind the counter at Honey Farms. Smile at the girl in Starbucks. At a push, talk to the person squashed in next to me when the train is packed like sardines. Hug a client I got to know really well. Or kiss a friend I haven’t seen for a while. On the cheek, of course. Oh so European.

What have we done? What the fuck have we done? To this world and to our lives?

Why can’t we even stop and talk anymore? Or just greet each other?

I know some things are cultural. Where I come from we kiss on the lips just to say hello. Men and women. Okay, more women than men. But I kiss my cousins on the lips when I see them. Men and women. I kissed my father on the lips even though we hardly spoke. And my brother. And my brother-in-laws. Even my ex brother-in-law. I kiss my best friends. On the lips. It’s just a hello.

I don’t want anything more from them. I just want to feel the link. That we are one. That we love each other. In a different way than when I kiss my wife. But so many times I just want to kiss the person I am friends with. Say hello in the way I know best because it means I open myself to my most vulnerable self. Take my lips. Our eyes will be close for a minute and the connection is confirmed. Just a kiss hello.

But I can’t. We can’t. It doesn’t fit in with our culture. At best I can get a hug. Or a kiss on the cheek. And I can live with that. It is easier because I know them already. We are already friends. There is already some connection. And with time it will grow. I hope.

But I know I miss my hello. When talking to strangers.

I have become one of those who worry about my kids. Not like when I was young. I could play in the streets and talk to strangers. But not today. Not in the life we live and the craziness that goes around.

Even that little girl in the blue house. I gave her hugs and ruffled her hair. But I always had to check who was looking. Just to make sure they don’t think anything funny was going on. She was just a little girl. Needing a hug. And I had to check that no one thought anything else.

How did we become like this?

We can say it is because of all the weirdos out there. The rapists and the child abusers and stealers of kids. I know they are out there. But somewhere along the line we allowed them to win. We allowed them to define who we are. And how we say hello.

How did the hello start to hurt us? How did the hello become a way to divide us? How did the hello move from love to scare?

I struggle with this every single day. How do you bring up your child to love everyone and still know about the danger out there? I don’t know. We all play it safe. We tell them not to say hello. Not to talk to strangers. Not to trust people they don’t know. Not to just say hello to everyone.

And slowly but surely we kill ourselves as we kill the hello inside our kids.

Talking to strangers.

How did we become the strangers?

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