When Seb and I landed at Congo’s second-national airport on the 7th of January, it was a return to very warm weather, friendly faces and familiar sounds. Among the usual chatter of Bonjours and Ça vas were many well-wishes of Bonne Année (Happy New Year). Some of these greetings were politely directed at us, but most of them I overheard amongst the Congolese to each other. The airport is always crowded and chaotic, not just with passengers but with many employees working shoulder-to-shoulder day in and day out. It was these employees I overheard greeting each other even though it was nearly noon, and wishing each other a happy new year even though it was already a week after the holiday.
I have been meaning to write about this “greeting” business for some time now. It’s not a big surprise that the people who work for our particular company are nice and polite with us, but what I find a true and heartwarming reflection of their character is how they are with each other. Each morning, when gardeners and housekeepers arrive at the houses in our neighborhood to begin work, I can open my window and hear a chorus of Jambo Mamas and Jambo Papas all around me. (Jambo meaning hello, and mama/papa being titles of affection and respect.) These greetings are followed by Jambo Sana (hello very much) in return, habari (what’s new) and mzuri (it’s good), followed by a little chit-chat maybe, but not too much, and then everyone heads off to their jobs. Throughout the day I continue to hear greetings such as these, and know that someone new must be passing through the neighborhood. Sometimes I hear singing, usually a gardener outside trying to keep things interesting, or songs off in the distance coming from beyond our gates or the next hill. It doesn’t seem to matter if the weather is bad, if someone didn’t get enough sleep, or if someone just came down with malaria – you can count on the Congolese to greet each other with extreme warmth and sincerity each and every day.
I don’t mean to paint a completely utopian picture here. There are occasional disagreements or the odd surly character, and I have stories to publish about them too. But for the most part, the Congolese are extremely warm and friendly people. It must be difficult to believe given their habit of NOT smiling anytime their photo is taken… but truly, in person, their smiles are offered freely and often. When Seb and I first moved here, everyone treated us politely and seemed nice enough at the time. Over time and with repeated exposure, I’ve noticed a change. There seems to be true warmness and sincerity now with the people we’ve gotten to know, even with relative strangers such as vendors at the local village market or cashiers in the shops in Lubumbashi. Maybe it’s the warmness and sincerity on my part which is often offered first, then met in equal measure. Over time I’ve changed too.
So happy new year to all! It may be the last day of January, but it’s not too late. Just yesterday a Congolese acquaintance I hadn’t seen since last year greeted me with a very warm Bonne Année! I’ll take it as a fitting reminder that the year has still just begun, and it’s not too late to remember resolutions I intended to start thirty-one days ago.