Ololilopiritit and co
"Hello mama, how are you? What's your name? How is life today? Nice to meet you.' We've recently added a large new family to our own, and it's growing a little bit every day. Wherever we go, every Ugandan takes a moment to greet us. The young and old call us mama or papa, the peers sister or brother, sometimes my friend, just as they call each other. This reference to family creates a confidential atmosphere, which quickly makes me feel at ease.
Many people also take the time to ask for our name, to introduce themselves, to talk about the little things of everyday life. The bottom is laid for the content that follows, such as whether this is the right way to the town of Abim, and whether there is a nice guesthouse here to spend the night. In the beginning we often made the mistake to suddenly come up with our question. "Hello sir, do you know where we can buy bananas?’ Our conversation partner then pretended he hadn't heard our question and started with the tune of 'how's it going? What's your name?’ We were then politely waiting and 'undergoing' until we finally got an answer to our question.
But in the meantime we know better. Because no, all that greetings and small things exchanges can't really be called efficient. It slows down life considerably. But after those hundreds of meetings over the past few months, we notice that it also adds softness to our contacts with people, and that we like to start those short exchanges. Perhaps they are even essential for us, travelers on the road, far away from our own family and friends. You take a short time to pay attention to each other, look each other in the eye in a friendly way, before returning to the order of the day.
And paying attention can really be taken literally here. Because when we say goodbye to each other again after a while, many people repeat our name, by way of perpetuating the encounter. During the first weeks we often had to confess with the red of shame on our cheeks that we hadn't completely registered their name. We were already at our question with our heads and considered that back-and-forth greeting as a kind of first obligatory number. Sometimes we couldn't blame ourselves, because then that name sounded like Ololilopirit, or Akunubakaritut. When Paul then said his name was Paul, many Ugandans looked at him pityingly or laughed at him. That short? Really? Much more often than that musical collection of vowels and consonants, however, people have a first name that is copied straight from the Bible: Francis, John, James, Samuel,... We can put our forgetfulness on nothing but a lack of attention from ourselves.
The British journalist Richard Dowden writes in his book 'The State of Africa' - highly recommended, by the way, for those who would like to understand the continent in its socio-economic, geopolitical and historical context – this Dowden writes how a Ugandan friend of his suffered much during a long stay in Western Europe that he was often ignored on the streets. No nod, no eye contact. And also how in the long run he longed to be touched again. Feeling skin on skin.
It's true. Clearly, people here like to feel each other physically as well. Many men walk hand in hand across the street or with their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders. So do women. It's a sign of friendship. We too are sometimes spontaneously hugged briefly, our hand is held a little longer when greeting each other. Sometimes our conversation partner puts his other hand tenderly on top of it. And often a friendly pat on the shoulder follows.
The most common greeting for us here is a solid example of hand acrobatics. First the hand is pressed, then the thumbs are hooked together and both hands turn upwards, then they go down again to reach the normal handshake, and then up again, where the thumbs never release each other. How often we have to go up and down is always a guess. Sometimes once, sometimes as much as five times.
Our fiddling makes sure that we end up in a funny kind of hand game, that the ice breaks immediately and provides the necessary hilarity, both with us and with our conversation partner.
Probably we are counting too much in our heads, while our Ugandan conversation partner just feels when the moment of 'letting go' has arrived.
In spite of those many greetings, I notice an intelligent kind of feeling with people about what is appropriate and desirable. Never do we feel like we are dealing with intrusive behaviour, never do we face yet another 'hello brother'. Maybe because the greeting here is what it is: saying hello to each other, wanting to feel each other's presence and mutual connection for a moment. With head and body. And then each one goes on with what the day brings.
You could call all this greeting a brief perpetuation of each other's existence and each other's being together in the world, if you want to express it more philosophically. Or as Dowden writes in his book: 'This is what Africa adds to the world: humanity'.