The Power of “Sawubona”…”Unjani”

This is a John Hain picture sourced from

In my language you greet someone by saying “Sawubona” which means “hi” and the person responds “Yebo” loosely translated “yes or you have my attention” you continue to ask  “Unjani” loosely translated “how are you” and the response most of the time is “Siyaphila/Ngiyaphila” translated “I am well.” From here the person takes the liberty to stretch the conversation by deliberately exploring and sharing how they feeling . In short greetings in my language are not mechanical or robotic, but they lead by default to a conversation. I have always found this amazing because I love conversations, I can converse with a stranger without even considering that it’s the first time I meet the person. This is just who I am. If I take the opportunity to greet I want to converse.

I have noticed over time the power behind this greeting. See, the moment one responds to a “Sawubona” it’s like they are giving you permission to enter into this sacred place in them, it can either be a dark or a happy place. You get permission to find out how one is doing, and how they are feeling, others call it a window into the person’s space. Hear me well here, I know people have adopted this attitude of minding their own business,  but look at where this has gotten us as a people. Our children live in lonely places that have led some of them to a point of deep depression. Some have become suicidal. What are we missing? We no longer use the power of “Sawubona” … “Unjani.” Our salutations and greetings are no longer done in an effort to find out how one is doing, they have become something we do because it’s we were told its the right thing to do. Our “Sawubona” has no feeling neither is it concerned with the well-being of the person we are greeting, the pace of life has made us so inhumane.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article titled “Communication the “Elephant in the Room.” I wrote it in the context of marriage. I still believe that the monstrosity we are afraid to face is communication. The exploratory nature of the Swazi greeting made me think. At some point, I was feeling that it’s invasive in its approach, but this afternoon I concluded that there are some things we can identify early in relating with others if we took the time to use the power of the greeting. Think about it, you live with your children, your spouse, parents etc. you greet them every morning with a typical “Sawubona” and figure it’s enough that you greeted them. Later in the day, you hear they have committed suicide, in that confusion you say “why didn’t they say anything to me.” You become guilty, thinking if I had seen it earlier maybe I could have prevented it. I agree with you, you could have, but you missed the opportunity by avoiding being invasive.

We’ve seen in the news when someone takes a gun and goes on the rampage killing people, we hear those interviewed saying “he was such a quiet person, whatever happened to trigger such hate?” But when you think about it, as communities we are now perpetuating an individualistic mentality where people are taught to mind their own business. An individualistic culture is a society which is characterized by individualism, which is the prioritization, or emphasis, of the individual over the entire group. Individualistic cultures are oriented around the self, being independent instead of identifying with a group mentality. I am sure you know that this culture is also found in marriages. Where couples push an individualistic modus operandi to the extent that none knows how the other is doing or what they are thinking. I have seen individuals who when asked how their loved one is doing, will only rely on the yebo from their loved one without knowing how one is really doing. See we leave everything to chance, “he was doing fine the last I asked.” 

In my line of work, people come to us when it’s too late, but they live with people. If I may ask you, what are the tell-tell signs that your child is not well? If s/he is normally a lively child when you see them being lethargic and lacking in energy you know there’s something wrong. You don’t ask a child, you just know and you act on it. The same approach really must suffice to our loved ones. You can see when someone is not well, and sometimes you don’t only need to rely on what you see but you can use the power of inquiry, the power of “Sawubona” … “Unjani.” Your being inquisitive could just save a life. And you could save yourself from speculating and living in suspicion that something is wrong.

I am a fan of collectivist societies, especially in the family setting. Collectivism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the group and its interests. Collectivism is the opposite of individualism. Collectivists focus on communal, societal, or national interests in various types of political, economic, and educational systems. In as much as these definitions focus on national level thinking but I think in a family setting we can’t afford to be individualistic, we need a good dose of collectivist thinking. I understand that we want our children to be independent, make informed decisions where life is concerned. I am of the view though that a child brought up in a collectivist family is more likely to revert back to family for support when times are tough. This is just my thinking. I believe a member of a collectivist society is most likely to meet a brother, sister, spouse, cousin etc. and say “Sawubona” and take it a step further to ask “Unjani.” And when they utilize the power of the greeting it is done sincerely and from a safe place in attempt to find out how the other person is doing.

It’s sad that we have had friends and family die a silent and painful deaths without getting a chance to tell someone how they are feeling. Exploring the “Sawubona” … “Unjani”  greeting will make us explore, invade and to be in the faces of people’s lives more especially the ones we love. We might just prevent some of these depressions that have led many to suicide, these isolations that have led our brothers and sisters into mental health facilities. Just maybe your spouse wouldn’t find solace in people outside of the family unit if you explored this power. Help me spread the power of these words, let’s use the power of the greeting “Sawubona” …”Unjani.” 

We can change the world around us. We can be our brother’s keeper. Someone might just be in need of someone to listen and hear them out. Someone might just find a friend in you. The power of “Sawubona” … “Unjani.” A better world is possible. I am guilty too, I sometime fail to reach out right when I am needed. I have waited to be asked “Unjani” instead of being the first to ask. I am putting it out here, the struggles of self-indulgence and pride have deprived us the opportunity to change the lives of those we love the most and most of all of those who need it the most.

Refer to the link below to read the article: Communication the “Elephant in the Room”


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