What we are hinges on respect

A black 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 acknowledge 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 non-patriarchal 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 non-patriarchal, non-racist, non-classist 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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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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