Friday, May 05, 2006

Receiving is giving

As I sat down I looked around the indlu (room). It was larger than I thought it would be and very homely. The Zulu family were very friendly and welcoming and Mr Mchunu immediately offered me something to drink. (Read more stories like this... and view our project site)

“What would you like to drink,” he asked, “ Coca cola, Sprite or Fanta?” I acted on my first thought, that I was “imposing upon them”, and declined the offer. How after all could I just arrive at their home, without invitation and cost them money to entertain me!

When I refused his offer a look of sadness crossed Baba Mchunu’s face. “Please have something,” he said and fortunately for me, my friend accepted on my behalf. As Mnumzane (Mr) Mchunu left the room, Bongamusa turned to me and said, “He wants to give you something. It is polite to accept.” As he spoke I saw a youngster sprint off in the direction of a local shop to buy our chosen cool-drink. It took me a long time to understand what had just happened.

I have grown up in a family and perhaps in a culture, that does not like to impose upon others. We have been taught not to “take advantage” of someone and to show our respect by “not being a burden to others.” We have been taught that vanity is a bad thing and we should not accept compliments lightly. If we have more than others, we give anonymously rather than receive “embarrassing compliments.”

In many African cultures the spirit of ubuntu (humanness) is shown through giving and receiving. When you allow someone to give you build a bond of friendship. When you refuse a gift you negate a friendship. My friend had saved me from breaking a future friendship. I later learned that it is not only African cultures that are brought up this way.

When I first went to visit my future wife’s home, all of the ladies in the house went to the open plan kitchen and began to prepare a meal. I remember thinking that it was strange to be making supper in mid-afternoon. The conversation carried on across the vegetables and the huge cooking pots. The rich, spicy smell of Eastern cooking was amazing and I was getting hungrier by the minute.

Then Arthie’s mum asked, “Would you like to have something to eat.” Immediately my upbringing kicked in. I was uninvited and was imposing upon their hospitality. “No thank you.” I replied. My stomach and my tastebuds were confused by my words but settled down to wait for home. It was not to be.

“Just one small bite...” began my mother-in-law to be. “Are you sure?” asked Arthie. “Come on. One small bite” prodded her mom. And eventually I relented. As I did she literally beamed with delight! I would learn too about the art of Eastern understatement as a huge multi-course meal was laid out before us.

Mrs Haripersad hovered behind me and began to ask, “Would you like some rice? Would you like some lamb curry? Would you like some roti? Can I get you some broad beans curry? Can I get...” Each time I consented she would select a huge serving spoon from its bowl and deliver food to my plate. She was in her element.

The food was delightful and plentiful. When I had finished all there was on the plate, she came swooping in. “Some more mutton?”, she asked and it appeared on the plate, near my over-full tummy. “Some more...?” I realised that I had to speak fast or my legs would soon not support my weight!

When I spoke to Arthie later, she told me that the reason that the ladies went to the kitchen was to prepare a meal just for me. As guests arrive food preparation begins! She told me that it was very important to accept an offer of food. This was a critical part of relationship building in an Indian home. She also taught me to take a little of everything so that I can have more later! And that I had “played the game well” by at first refusing the offer of food and later relenting. Lucky me!

One of our greatest opportunities to build a relationship would be to accept and sit down to a meal, or snack. Your greatest gift is to receive the food and in so doing their greater offer of friendship. People from individualistic cultures will soon get used to receiving and realize that they are not “imposing”. A simple “Yes, please”, with gentle guidance to the quantity and what your beliefs allow you to eat, will ease the way.

If you don’t eat curry or meat, say so. If your food has to be Halaal or Kosher, let your host know. If you do not drink alcohol, ask for water or a cool-drink.

In my early visits to Zulu homes I remember that by saying “Ngiyabonga.” (Thank you) when offered something, I effectively said “No thank you.” This was quite confusing as the “thank you” relates to the kindness of the offer and is a gentle way of declining the drink or food. It is a pity because I was often very hot & thirsty and, until I realised my error, I never received the offered tea or cool drink!

So, if you cannot eat or receive for any reason - in many of the community based groups - merely say “Thank you.” This gratefulness for the offer allows the gift of giving to be received, without the need to eat or drink.

These interactions with large community based families got me thinking... How often do we offer a compliment and the gift is negated?

When we say, “That is such a lovely outfit!” The answer could be, “This stupid old thing, I bought it for R10.00 at the flea-market.” Or we say, “I love the way you handled that customer.” and are answered, “I have to. I get paid to be nice.”

When that happens how do you feel? Would you share another compliment with that person, or will you steer away from saying anything good to them?

Most people will stop complimenting, or offering assistance, or inviting someone for dinner if the responses are often negative. In fact people, from many groups and cultures, would feel that their offer of friendship is being denied, and that hurts!

Food for the body builds people and friendships, as does sustenance for the soul. Compliments, praise and sharing are high on the main menu for the soul. A lot of people say that friendship is hard work. Perhaps it would be far easier if we learned how to receive. So what should we do?

Praise and compliments should be received with a humble, “Thank you.” In allowing someone to give praise, we create a world and environment where caring becomes the norm. Let’s begin to allow a giver to give, simply by receiving. Thus we honour their giving with gratitude.

And by humbly receiving, we give the greatest gift of all!

Brian V Moore©

The Art of Giving

We could see twists of smoke rising high above the trees as we drove towards mamah’s house.

Our mood was pensive as we wondered what we would find. We had just received a message that Arthie’s mamah’s (uncle’s) home had burnt to the ground. It had been in the family for more than a hundred years. We drove up a small dirt road and arrived at the still smoking remnants of the home. It was now just an open plot with the concrete floor lying open to the heavens and the afternoon shadows of the giant wattle trees. (Read more stories like this... and view our project site)

Mamah stumbled over. He was totally distraught and clung to me crying, "We have lost everything. It’s all gone. All gone."

I held him until he was a little calmer. His wife and children wandered around looking for any items that may have been spared. They were in shock and tearful. They had lost their life-long belongings and all the recent purchases of gold jewellery and clothing for their daughter’s up-coming wedding. A Hindi wedding is an expensive affair and they had committed their life’s savings to the purchases. All they now owned were the clothes that they wore. It was a huge tragedy as nothing had been insured.

As onlookers and helpers milled around the dusty smoking site, I wondered what would happen to the family. I had forgotten the nature of Hindu people. A nearby neighbour had already opened up their home and space had been made for the whole family and huge support was already at hand. I turned to Arthie, in private and said, "We have to help them. I have a lot of clothes at home that I can give to mamah." She nodded and I knew that my words were not necessary. That decision had already been made.

We went home and I began to look through the clothes that I no longer used, or for items that did not fit me any longer. When I turned to Arthie, I saw that she had begun packing brand-new clothes for the girls. "Arts," I asked, "why are you giving away your new clothes? We just bought them a few days ago."

She then said something that will stay with me forever, "How would you feel if you had just lost your home and you had to wear second hand clothes. New, fashionable clothes will make them feel special." She gently added, "If you give away something it has far more value if it is something you really wanted to keep." Into the suitcase went all of her new clothes, new toothbrushes, toothpaste, a cuddly cat and new deodorant.

I looked at my pile and realised that my gift would not make anyone feel special on such a tragic day. I then began to find items that would raise my spirit if I were in mamah’s place. My mind wrestled with my resolve as some of my favourite items went in to the suitcase.

As I worked I thought how different this was to my own upbringing and my mind went back to the scene. It seemed as if the news had been painted on the sky for all to see. A continuous stream of family and friends had arrived bringing love, care, support and assistance. And just as we were leaving for home, another family member had arrived with two plastic-wrapped beds atop a delivery van. Brand new gifts - just for the family.

Months after the fire we visited the family. They were now fairly well settled. One of the girls said to Arthie. "You really made us feel really special. You thought of everything. Clothes, toothbrushes, deodorant and most of all that cuddly cat was exactly like the one I had lost in the fire. It was if you had read our minds!"

It is moments like this that I again realise that my wife is truly special and that there are many lessons to be learnt from her and from other cultures.

From the moment we met our path has been one of growth and learning. We jointly bring something truly special to our relationships and through our work we will leave a powerful and positive legacy of humanness in the world.

Brian V Moore© Durban, South Africa