You cannot embark on any daily traipse for more than a few steps before engaging in a universal social ritual: the act of greeting. Customary though it be, this practice, full of possibility, possesses enormous significance whether in encounter with neighbor, stranger or even stray dog. Echoing the Hippocratic oath, the rule of thumb for travel or visit must be, “To do no harm, first master and extend the greeting.” And for no one more so than the ‘traipser’ uncertain of his or her place or welcome.
The anonymity of our cities, our sensitivities about privacy and the drive for efficiencies in daily life have driven the practice of greeting to near endangered, vestigial status. When visitors come from the global South they remark on our barbarous habit of passing others without acknowledgement or speaking. And, by contrast, visitors to Asia and Africa are disbelieving at the lengthy and elegant pains taken to greet even strangers on the path.
So, it was providential, I think, that when decorating our cinderblock house along a dusty city street in Botswana, a batik scene figured prominently on our sitting room wall: an elephant raising its trunk as though in greeting. This remained only an attractive piece of handiwork until I went solo to spend some weeks in the tiny Kalahari hamlet of ‘Lentswe le Tau’ (‘the-Rock-and-the-Lion’). I was hosted by a delightful family who had themselves fled there for refuge from a relative who they were certain possessed powers of sorcery. They spoke not a word of English which was precisely the point. And they lived at the foot of a prominent outcrop (the ‘Lentswe’) though I never encountered the lion (the ‘Tau’). At least not the maned creature of the wild. As my adoptive family, they brought me with great ceremony to greet the village chief and elders, announcing with eloquence and proverbs that an ignorant outsider (‘lekgoa’) had arrived in the hopes of acquiring knowledge of language and custom. With that, I was in.
So it was that I set out one afternoon to visit the local school in hope of learning from the indulgent and forgiving children. Along the way, seated in the shade of a prized marula tree, I noticed an elderly gentleman apparently lost in reverie while gazing at the desert horizon. I tiptoe’d by not wanting to disturb his dreamy moment and eventually found the school. The place was fairly rocking with dance and song and chanted recitation where I was received with laughter. Toward evening, I set out for home on the crest of their excitement and humor and with a handful of new phrases.
As I passed the marula tree, however, an angry summons drew me up short. It was the old man. He approached me full of shouts and reproach. He demanded to know from what savage country I came where people would pass without offering even a single word or gesture of greeting. As I began to stammer that I had meant no ill-will, children and passers-by began to gather to witness the tongue-lashing administered with such relish by the elderly neighbor. And, of course, there was the entertaining sight of a desolate foreigner who was being schooled, yes, scorched, for having fumbled the most elementary social cues. I can hardly describe my shame in English, let alone in Tswana. ‘Eyewatering’ doesn’t even begin to tell it. If there had been any public transport in this village of donkey carts, thorn trees, open fires and carried water, I would have fled forthwith. But I was marooned. And that was a happy thing since it allowed me to reframe soberly who I was as ‘traipser’ in this amazing and mysterious corner of Africa. The Tswana proverb says, as I later learned,
Fa e tlhodile molapo, ga e thlole e le tlou, ke tlotswana.
(When the elephant crossed the river, it discovered it was just a little calf.)
When I returned to our home in town, upon entering the front door, I was confronted by that batik image of the elephant poised in greeting. Now it became for me much more than clever artwork. It was a ‘sign’ – that central to who we are as creatures is our capacity to acknowledge, to honor, each other in greeting. These encounters can never be incidental. They are moments when two souls salute one another. This was the civilizing gift to me – the lifelong gift – of an old man at the marula tree in Lentswe le Tau.