Friday, May 15, 2009

Togolese-ism #2: why hello there!

Greetings are such an important part of life and the culture here that you can’t help but take part in what can seem like redundant and time-wasting repetitions. But to believe in what “seems” in Togo is a monumental mistake and anyone who does so should take a step back before their ethnocentric judgments get the better of them (myself included). To put it simply, everyone greets everyone in the village. And it is not the simple “hello, how are you?” it is a series of questions that are asked, here are a few examples loosely translated from the local languages:

How did you sleep?
How did you wake up?
How is your family?
Yesterdays work?
Your wife?
Your household?
Your health?

The questions change if you have seen the person already in the day with linguistic subtleties that are always amazing to me. For example: The work of yesterday in Ewe (Eh-Choe-Beh-Doe?) changes into (Ehg-Beh-Beh-Doe?) if you have seen the person once already that day. The languages are beautiful to me and I only wish I had the time, patience, and mind to learn and breakdown all the languages in the milieu. Ok so what gets me is that it is not just people who know each other who greet. For instance, if someone walks into a compound with the intention of visiting a certain family and the family is not there it would be utterly rude to walk right past their neighbors without the series of greetings. This might not sound that absurd, common courtesy right? However, there really isn’t an equivalent social norm in the States. If you are seen walking or riding past a friend or acquaintances house without stopping and doing the bare minimum greetings it is rude here in Togo. In the US though, some people might consider it rude, annoying, or just plan weird if their distant neighbor stopped by whenever they were in passage and asked the “same” questions everyday.

I don’t want to patronize the practice, though. Although much of the greeting dialogue is the same day-in and day-out, for me it doesn’t diminish what it actually represents. For me it is proof of the sense of community in Datcha, Togo, and maybe, although I hate generalizing, West Africa in general. People ask because if you are sick, you are hungry, or in need of something it is the community- your family- who will take care of you. I’ve been pretty sick this last week and I really have had time to think about the sense of community in Datcha. More than anything I am thankful for my integration into that community where people stop by to say hi and check in not because they feel sorry for me or feel like they have to because I’m the white girl in Togo, but because it’s what they do, what they’ve always done and what they would expect from me in return. And they do it because- We are family, what’s mine is yours, even when what’s mine seriously, unmistakably, and unjustly outweighs what is yours.

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