What we are hinges on re­spect

Mail & Guardian - - Lifestyle -

Ablack friend of mine was stand­ing in a queue at Spar last week­end when a white woman ar­rived and stood next to her. It was just the two of them in the area and the white woman did not do that thing that peo­ple do, which is to ac­knowl­edge the pres­ence of an­other when they ar­rive in a space, be it an el­e­va­tor or an empty cor­ri­dor.

In her head, my friend sucked her teeth and said to her­self: “I’m not greet­ing this white bitch”, cer­tain that the white woman was also say­ing to her­self that she’s “not greet­ing this black bitch”. They stood there in si­lence un­til the white woman’s daugh­ter ar­rived push­ing one of those chil­dren-sized trol­leys. She must have been about five years old. The spirit of the child en­tered the scene; she looked at my friend, smiled and loudly said, “Hello.”

My friend, feel­ing jolted back to the ground, snapped out of her sulk and greeted her back, think­ing this child has a way of know­ing that some­thing is meant to hap­pen when two peo­ple en­counter each other.

As she re­layed the story, my friend said: “The child was think­ing, ‘hey, I just ar­rived on Earth and have no idea why you two are break­ing the code’.” Even though she didn’t al­low her­self to greet the mother, who ap­peared un­set­tled by her child’s in­ter­ven­tion, my friend also had iint­loni — a feel­ing of dis­com­fort or em­bar­rass­ment for not do­ing what you are sup­posed to do, or when you have been ex­posed about some­thing you may have been try­ing to hide — about the fact that she had failed to do some­thing in­stinc­tual in that mo­ment.

Un­der­ly­ing this and nu­mer­ous other daily en­coun­ters, re­gard­less of race, class, gen­der, age or re­la­tion­ship, is the ques­tion of re­spect. A fun­da­men­tal is­sue that leads to mis­un­der­stand­ings, quar­rels, strained re­la­tion­ships and even ha­tred be­tween in­di­vid­u­als or groups is a fail­ure to show re­spect.

The other fac­tors then come into play and our in­ter­pre­ta­tion nes­tles un­der one of more of the -isms.

This small ex­am­ple il­lus­trates the mil­lions of ways our in­ten­tions and ac­tions are lost in trans­la­tion be­cause we do not all live by the same codes of re­spect.

I’m the kind of per­son who walks into a space and greets or ac­knowl­edges the pres­ence of oth­ers, no mat­ter how in­con­ve­nient, be­cause I was raised to do so. It was con­sid­ered se­ri­ously dis­re­spect­ful not greet or even to walk past an­other per­son on your way to the shops or some­where else and not greet them. I was taught that this ac­knowl­edge­ment is the pre­cur­sor to any real con­nec­tion two peo­ple are try­ing to make, no mat­ter how brief.

Other peo­ple don’t care whether they are greeted or not. It’s un­der­stand­able. We live in high-vol­ume spa­ces. Our work sched­ules are in­sane. We have a mil­lion things on our minds. We sim­ply don’t al­ways have the time to stop and ac­know-ledge the pres­ences of oth­ers be­cause we are all on our own mis­sions. The price we pay for that is be­ing iso­lated from one an­other, lonely and dis­con­nected — not only from oth­ers, but our­selves.

Modes of inhlonipho (re­spect) are the ways in which “ways of be­ing” are pro­moted, im­ple­mented and pre­served. The var­i­ous groups that fall un­der the um­brella of, for in­stance, Xhosa cul­tures — amaBhaca, ama-Hlubi, amaXe­sibe, amaMfengu, amaMpondo, amaMpon­domise — prac­tice forms of nhlonipho that are not al­ways the same but their ex­is­tence is there to give abantu a kind of man­ual for “how to be in the world”.

The same way a Mus­lim woman in hi­jab ob­serves cer­tain pro­to­cols and ways of be­ing in the world be­cause of what she is wear­ing, or a frum Jewish man or woman can’t just do any­thing and ev­ery­thing they want at any given mo­ment be­cause they are con­scious of the yarmulke or shei­tel and what that rep­re­sents.

When my mother used to visit my pa­ter­nal grand­mother when she was still alive, we would leave our house in But­ter­worth and my mother would wear her pha­laza (palazzo pants), a blouse and san­dals for in­stance.

But maybe a kilo­me­tre from Bawa, where my grand­mother MaRhadebe lived, my mother would stop the car and dress her­self in the qhiya, dress, over­dress and blan­ket that a makoti wears at her hus­band’s home, where, ac­cord­ing to hlonipha cus­tom, she also goes by her makoti name.

The name also comes with a new lan­guage that she has to learn to main­tain her place in the home in re­la­tion to oth­ers. For ex­am­ple, whereas pre­vi­ously she used to say amanzi when she meant wa­ter, the hlonipha word she must now say is um­bethe (dew) or imvotho. This also ap­plies to learn­ing other words for live­stock and house­hold items.

When I go to my mother’s vil­lage, these silent modes of nhlonipho are still in place. For in­stance, the men al­ways sit on the left-hand side of the hut and the women on the right-hand side in re­la­tion to the door. I don’t know why this is but, if one looked for at the orig­i­nal ra­tio­nale, there is prob­a­bly a sound, well-re­searched and non­pa­tri­ar­chal rea­son.

If one of us chil­dren made the mis­take of walk­ing over my fa­ther’s stick or over his out­stretched legs, he would rep­ri­mand us. I used to think it was be­cause our cul­ture is so op­pres­sive of women (which it cer­tainly has be­come), but he was im­ple­ment­ing a hlo­hipha cus­tom that one could ar­gue was in­tended to pro­tect lit­tle girls from po­ten­tial pae­dophiles.

My grand­mother used to ad­mon­ish us girls for eat­ing eggs. We would eat them any­way, not re­al­is­ing that, ac­cord­ing to nhlonipho cus­toms, aman­tombazana, girls of tween and teen age were pro­hib­ited from eat­ing eggs be­cause the pro­tein in them would fast-track the on­set of pu­berty. Back in the day, peo­ple started men­stru­at­ing in their late teens, un­like to­day.

The mea­sure of how much or how lit­tle a per­son shows re­spect is in how much or how lit­tle iint­loni they have about all man­ner of things. With­out try­ing to be con­ser­va­tive, I’m here for the lib­er­a­tion of all hu­man be­ings to do what­ever they need to do in or­der to feel whole. I’m here for non­pa­tri­ar­chal, non­racist, non­clas­sist forms of so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion.

But it is un­de­ni­able that, as a species, the count­less forms of nhlonipho, ob­ser­vance and con­scious­ness that our an­ces­tors, no mat­ter where they were from, sought, cre­ated and im­ple­mented were there to hold our hu­man­ity in par­tic­u­lar ways, so that we did not stray from up­hold­ing re­spect for one­self, oth­ers, na­ture, God and a rev­er­ence for life it­self. Iint­loni are mere re­minders of who we are un­der­neath it all.

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