I was warned, before embarking for the United States, that Americans have poor English. Although I appreciated such efforts to prepare for my experience in this country, I remained unfazed.
On the one hand, bad grammar, especially in a language that has established itself in the world, can only be expected. In fact, embracing “bad grammar” is a mode of anti-colonial resistance that I applaud. But, when I arrived in the land of the free, I was perplexed to find that the dominant language was rebelling, not only against the conventions of grammar, but against the norms of punctuation – with one clause in particular. It was in the cosmopolitan confines of Cambridge that I encountered the “Hi, how are you?” that ends with a period instead of a question mark.
I quickly realized that the city that was going to woo me for the next four years of my life was a city that didn’t know how to greet. Instead, I was married to a city of sprinters, where we rush past others with such speed that people become mere yard markers in the race to our next destination. In our ritual depiction of city life – where eye contact is seemingly too intimate for the people we mumble “hello” to on our daily commute – I miss “Sawubona”.
I miss more than the cadence of the vowels, lulled by the warmth of the “buh” and lifted by the murmuring “w”. I miss more than being immersed in the language it evolved from – a language I can’t speak or understand properly, but a language I can’t separate from where I call home. me. Where I come from, in the vernacular of the people of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, “hello” is not “hello”. In isiZulu we greet with “Sawubona” - “We see you”. When we greet, we testify and profess, breathing the soul into the hollow chambers of “hello”. I miss Sawubona. I miss being seen.
Remarkably, I received some of the best greetings of my life since being in Massachusetts. However, most of these experiences have taken place in restaurants, cafes and retail outlets, where smiles and “good mornings” are attached to monetary values. It would be convenient for me to pawn this flaw as characteristic American commercialism and add it to my arsenal of reasons for criticizing the nation of which I am now a part, a nation to which I blame all that it possesses in the detriment of the place. like in my house. It would be easy to extend this statement and juxtapose it with the values of community that I have attached to
South Africa — a country with personality, a nation with charisma. While I could stress my disdain for America’s capitalist failures, the question of the salutation (or lack thereof) is not limited to America. In fact, my own devotion to the conventions of “Hi” and “How are you?” is a relatively recent development.
I started my commitment to welcome people who do not comply with the rules of my school. These rules, which stipulated the necessity of greeting, legitimized a culture of recognition. But this legitimacy was selective. I remember these regulations were practically italicized with our interactions with school staff – teachers and management staff. But not the people in between. Not the guards, the majority of whom in South Africa are poor; People who have come from far and wide to maintain the balance of well-trimmed suburbs for unsustainable salaries and even fewer thanks. This rule may have arisen to reinforce the traditional dynamic of institutional respect. But the omission of some workers from the institutionalized host culture had sinister collateral effects, even if they were accidental. By greeting according to the socio-economic pecking order, we predetermined which people were to be seen more than others.
What started as a daunting drudgery, driven by fear of retaliation, became a commitment to seeing — acknowledging — everyone: the cashiers at the supermarket, the security guards, the employees at my high school.
And, here at Harvard, we should make an effort to greet the people in our lobby, the strangers we sit with at Annenberg, and our classmates. But we must be more dedicated to saluting the people who are often overlooked as part of the red brick of this institution – the HUDS staff, the workers who bustle in the yard during the day, the security guards who guard the campus gates 24 hours a day. 7.
We live in a time when the rights of these workers, both in our institution and in the community at large, are at odds with a society co-opted by the dynamics of profit and capital. Thus, choosing to recognize everyone becomes a political decision. The exploitation of these workers is supported by the narrative that they are disposable. But the accounts of expendability become empty when we begin to see all people as people. “Sawubona” then becomes not only the act of witnessing: it affirms itself, more importantly, as the refusal to ignore.
We salute in the center those people who are eternally housed in the ring road – even if only for a moment.
Colombe O. Eyono ’25, editor of Crimson, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.
This piece is part of a focus on black authors and experiences for Black History Month.