Visitors often return from holidays in southern Africa with endearing memories and experiences not only of the majestic scenery and the spectacular terrestrial and oceanic wildlife but of the genuine hospitality and warmth of the local peoples.
Having spent 20 of my last 30 years living in South Africa I am often asked why this is so and I thought it was about time I delivered a considered answer to the question: ‘What makes Africans so hospitable?’
In my opinion there are two major factors influencing this; one rooted deeply in African culture and the other vested, simply enough, in the weather.
Amongst those I spoke with, whilst widely seeking contribution to help me construct a viable answer, Africans talk about having been privileged to have grown up in a more rural, communal set-up where individualism was foreign and a deep sense of community prevailed.
In South Africa the word Ubuntu springs immediately to mind. Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained Ubuntu in a speech when he was addressing the Ubuntu Womens Institute, USA, in 2008: ‘One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu: the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality, Ubuntu, you are known for your generosity.’
Indeed Nelson Mandela explains the concept of Ubuntu in this short clip:
On investigation it was easy to find derivatives of this word and the concept it embodies throughout southern Africa.
In Malawi philosophers have been writing about ‘uMunthu’ for years. According to the Catholic Diocese of Zomba bishop Rt. Rev. Fr. Thomas Msusa, ‘The African worldview is about living as one family, belonging to God’. Msusa noted that in Africa we say ‘I am because we are’.
In Western Uganda and also in northern Tanzania we see the word ‘Obuntu’ which refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humane-ness towards others.
In Rwanda and Burundi, Ubuntu means, among other things, ‘human generosity’ as well as humanity (as above). In Rwandan and Burundian society it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to ‘gira ubuntu’ meaning to ‘have consideration and be humane’ towards others; thus it has the extended meanings of ‘generosity’ and ‘free, given at no cost’.
In the Tswana language the same concept also exists. It is called ‘Botho’ (derived from the Setswana, Zulu and Xhosa languages of Southern Africa), and the phrase that a person is a person through other people translates to ‘motho ke motho ka batho’. Botho is a measure of mutual respect and accountability to all members of society and is so deeply rooted in that society that it is one of Botswana‘s five national principles.
So from a cultural perspective there is significant evidence to support that fact that the offering of help and hospitality to others; being thoughtful of others needs and well being; being on the other persons agenda and being generous to others has been widely woven into the common social practices of many southern African countries since the beginning of time.
I’d be very interested to hear from you if you are aware of other languages/cultures from around this diverse planet of ours that incorporate words typifying these characteristics. Please do post your insights below and forward to others in your network, in far flung destinations, who may also be able to add to this list.
This brings me to my second belief: that the weather also has a palpable and significant effect upon why Africans are so hospitable.
On moving to picturesque Plettenberg Bay in South Africa, in September 1983, my first experience was about how easy it was to transition from an ‘inside’ to an ‘outside’ life. In no time at all my English ‘daily staple’ of watching TV became a distant memory and that’s the way it remained for the next 4 years! Being out and about, socialising with others, hiking the many easily accessible trails, playing sports and messing about in the sea or just sitting out under the warm African night sky, teeming with innumerable stars, chatting with friends or simply reading, alone, dominated my life outside of work. It is very easy to create a busy social calendar, by day and by night, when everyone can rely on the fact that the weather is on your side for the vast majority of the year.
This nurtures a society better socialised than others and it fosters a more hospitable attitude towards others, by default. Under the African sun, each person, from the very young to the old and everyone in between, mix together regularly and seamlessly. The offer of hospitality, one to another, is commonplace. One automatically assumes the role of a ‘host’ on a regular basis and the ready adoption and acceptance of others into this active and vibrant circle of sociability was, and still is, a natural part of the way one experiences one’s social life in Africa.
From a more scientific standpoint, various studies by Sanders and Brizzolara (1982), Howard and Hoffman (1984), Denissen et al., 2008, shows that a correlation between mood and weather does exist and that both temperature and hours of sunshine have the greatest effect on mood and, by association, attitude. Rising temperatures lower anxiety and scepticism and the number of hours of sunshine was found to predict optimism. As the number of hours of sunshine increase so an individual’s optimism and positive attitude towards oneself and others also increases – so there is scientific evidence that weather can enhance mood to support my theoretical opinion.
Further evidence that Africans make for a generally hospitable crowd is evidenced in the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’ that was made famous by the movie The Lion King. A Swahili phrase that can be translated literally as: ‘There are no worries’. Its meaning is akin to ‘don’t worry, be happy’, a phrase conceived by Bob Marley and more recently covered in the movie ‘Cocktail’, performed by Bobby McFerrin
The song ‘Hakuna Matata’ has been popularized, to the extent that it is heard often at resorts, hotels and other places appealing to the tourism and hospitality industry. Furthermore the phrase is in common use in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Kenya.
So, then, it can be taken as fact that Africans do indeed stand out amongst the peoples of the world as Impeccable Hosts. This fact is a boon for those who live there and also for the tourists who visit Africa in ever increasing numbers; and it is also why, whilst my wife holds my heart in her hand, it is in Africa that my spirit truly soars.