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©


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