The real trick is…

People here find Americans unfriendly, which really isn’t too surprising. We tend to mind our own business, to not impose on strangers by forcing them into a conversation. It’s just polite. Here in Zambia, though, saying hi to people is the norm. In Tonga, the morning greeting is, “How have you woken?”, in the afternoon, it’s “How’s the afternoon?”, after dark it’s “How is your evening?”. The response is usually “Fine”, though sometimes you’ll get the regal, “We have woken.” or, “Our afternoon is good.” In English, you get the ubiquitous, “How are you?”, to which the expected answer is “Fine.” When my family was here, my parents took a certain amount of (slightly) evil enjoyment out of responding with things like, “It is a fantastic day, and this is a phenomenal trip, so we are wonderful.” Cue blank stares.

In my village it makes sense to pass greetings out right and left: I know just about everybody and am happy to say hi and to chat a bit about our families. I’m never in a hurry to get anywhere, so it’s nice to pause in the shade and briefly catch up. However, when I go to Chibombo, my nearest town, or one of the big cities, the greeting thing can feel a little silly. I can’t count the number of extended conversations I’ve had in the middle of the street with complete strangers. If I’m in a good mood, and not in a hurry, it’s fine, but some days a 10 minute dialogue is just beyond me for one reason or another. Walking down a crowded sidewalk can be exhausting, having to greet everyone you pass, and people are always eager to greet me. Zambians can walk past each other with simple eye contact or a slight nod, but everyone wants to actually talk to a muzungu. So much for enjoying the life of a minor celebrity.

Greeting is also a bit awkward when I’m biking to town. It’s difficuly to get, “Mwalibiha buti” out while zipping past someone, and even harder to catch their response and returned greeting. Waving sometimes works, but frequently people want to wave AND verbally greet, so I usually just start off using my words. There are several little veggie stands between me and town, and the women selling there recognize me and call out greetings as I bike past. Sometimes we’ll even have brief, shouted, Tonga conversations, along the lines of “Back already?” “Yes: I just had to go to the post office.”

I also make a point of greeting everybody biking or walking up the opposite side of the road, yelling or waving across two lanes of traffic. I’ve been here long enough that some people recognize me, but some are still surpised when they hear me speaking Tonga. One day I almost made a man fall off his bicycle, he was so startled to hear me greet. I have to admit, seeing the surprise, wonder, or excitement on people’s faces when they hear me talk is one of my favorite parts of being able to speak even a little Tonga. I love greeting little old ladies, who break into huge, gummy grins when they hear me talk. I love greeting little kids, who shriek with excitement. I love greeting bamaas on their way to market, who smile and wave, balancing huge baskets of vegetables on their heads.

I have found that there is a downside to indiscriminantly greeting as I bike past, though: it can be difficult to tell what people are doing, especially if they’re across the road from me. So the last time I biked to town, I greeted a man standing by his bicycle, facing away from the road. He turned his head, nodded, and I just kept going. A minute later I realized what had happened: you see, the real trick is to not greet someone while they’re peeing…