Monday, June 28, 2010

Greetings and such.

There is nothing more important to the Sudanese than personal relationships. Their friendships, their associations with others – these are key to understanding the Sudanese. I was sharply reminded of this a few weeks ago. There is a retired bishop that has been living for some time at the Guest House. One evening an old childhood friend of the bishop's that is now working for a government ministry stopped by for a visit. I had the pleasure of meeting the bishop's friend and spending some minutes talking with these gentlemen. And as I was taking my leave I said to the friend, in a typical breezy American style of something you say without really thinking about it, “See you, and if I can ever help you, give me a call.” The friend was aghast. “Oh, no,” he said, “We do not know each other well enough for us to consider talking business. We must meet several more times, get to know each other better, before we can discuss business.” Chastened, I replied that he was, of course, correct and that I would enjoy seeing him again.
It may seem maddening to a westerner how much time the Sudanese spend sitting around in plastic chairs under shade trees just talking and doing, to our minds, precious little. But it is all part of the social fabric here, it is how relationships are forged, connections made, news transmitted and ideas discussed. And for a society which still is ruled by tribal considerations and who you know is far more important than what you know, the strength of these social connections is what governs how society functions. And it is because of how deep these associations and friendships run that explains why Sudanese greet each other so warmly, with genuine affection, in rituals which convey all kinds of meaning. Though a real Sudanese might laugh at my misunderstandings, I have observed the following styles of greetings during my time here.
Shakinghands is the most important ritual performed by the Sudanese. Whenever you meet someone or you see someone you know you are expected to stop whatever your doing and shake hands. It doesn't matter if you've already shaken hands with these people already today. It doesn't matter if you just shook hands with these people five minutes ago. If they visit you in your office, or you visit them in theirs, you are expected once again to shake hands. Doing less is considered offensive. Also, if you meet someone out and you have a few minutes of conversation, it is not uncommon as each of you makes a point or as you share a laugh or bit of news that you might shake hands again...and again. It is also not uncommon – and this primarily for men rather than women – to see people of the same sex walking hand in hand. It is meant as a sign of friendly or brotherly affection, nothing more. Although I see this somewhat in Juba, this practice is much more common in the countryside. When I spent a weekend in Terakeka I probably observed more than two dozen instances of men walking around hand in hand. The Sudanese would be offended beyond belief if anyone suggested that such behavior had a sexual component, being as they are rather homophobic in general. No, it is a sign of friendship and one I've had to become used to myself as I've had my hand held by men at times.
When two Sudanese with a good regard for each other meet – where there has been some time between meetings – they will first place their right hands on each other's left shoulders, or tap their friend's left shoulder, before shaking hands and/or embracing. A more elaborate hand shake in such an instance might involve the regular shake, then a shake wherein thumbs are gripped, and then back to a regular shake. It is a variant of the style of handshakes that used to be practiced in Afrcan-American communities back in the 1970's and '80's. A less intense means of a person showing affection or respect for the person whose hand they are shaking might be to grip the other person's hand with two hands.
When a person wishes to show great deference to the person whose hand he is shaking – and this can occur because of any number of social or economic disparities between people – the person showing the deference will shake hands with their right hand but place their left hand on their right forearm, maybe six-inches or so up from their wrist. I've also seen people do this, for example, at church during free-will offerings. The person making the offering will hold their outstretched right arm with their left hand six-inches up from the wrist. In that case they might even bow slightly.
A variation of this in reverse is when you've already got your hand out to greet someone, the person you're greeting might offer you their right forearm for you to touch rather than offer their hand. But I've also seen this done during mealtimes. Since the Sudanese – real Sudanese, anyway – eat primarily with their hands, if you meet someone while their hands are soiled with food they will likely offer you their right forearm to touch. The washing of hands before and after meals is an ingrained, lovely public ritual which visitors quickly come to appreciate. It shortly becomes second nature to you to expect to wash hands before and after every meal to where it will be difficult not to enjoy this public ritual upon returning home.
The Sudanese are a lovely, gracious people, with impeccable manners. In their speech, in their deportment, they are never less than courteous. I've never heard anyone use vulgar or salacious language, I've never even heard anyone curse. It is a refreshing change from America. And though I have not discounted the possibility that people are behaving this way since there is an outsider around, I have observed the Sudanese often enough in their private moments to think they are like this most of the time. Lovely people.