Words of different meanings

Feb 27th, 2007 | By | Category: International

A friend working for a development agency in Africa, emailed me this afternoon. Even in email he observes the old African courtesy of a formal greeting and inquiring after the health of myself and my family before going on to the business of his communication. There is a formality in African etiquette that is both an expression of deep respect for the other person and of a willingness to spend time showing a genuine interest in the other person in order to build a good and strong relationship.

Responding to him I took time to tell news of what was happening here and to express good wishes regarding the health of he and his family, realising that the function of language in African culture is often different from that in Europe. In Europe we use language to establish logical truths, “did you do this?” In Africa, logical statements are often secondary to the establishment of a relationship, “I hope your family are in good health”.

In writing my email, thoughts went to Mma Precious Ramotswe, Alexander McCall Smith’s number one lady detective. Mma Ramotswe’s worldview is beautifully encompassed in a paragraph.

“She breakfasted quickly and then drove directly to the office. It was getting towards the end of winter, which meant that the temperature of the air was just right, and the sky was bright, pale blue, and cloudless. There was a slight smell of wood-smoke in the air, a smell that tugged at her heart because it reminded her of mornings around the fire in Mochudi. She would go back there, she thought, when she had worked long enough to retire. She would buy a house, or build one perhaps, and ask some of her cousins to live with her. They would grow melons on the lands and might even buy a small shop in the village; and every morning she could sit in front of her house and sniff at the wood-smoke and look for­ward to spending the day talking with her friends. How sorry she felt for white people, who couldn’t do any of this, and who were always dashing around and worrying themselves over things that were going to happen anyway. What use was it having all that money if you could never sit still or just watch your cattle eating grass? None, in her view; none at all, and yet they did not know it. Every so often you met a white person who understood, who realised how things really were; but these people were few and far between and the other white people often treated them with suspicion”.

A different world from Dublin.

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