As I walked into gym this morning I greeted a man older than me, or at the very least about my age (61).
“Heyta Baba! Ninjani (how are you)?” I said.
He replied, “What did you call me?”
“I called you ‘Baba’, a respectful greeting!”
“Don’t come with your white supremacist attitude calling me ‘Baba’!” he said.
I was taken aback. This has not happened to me before. I tried to explain to him that I have learned in OUR culture (yes, I am an African, albeit of the pale kind) that is the way to respectfully greet older men. No matter how much I tried to explain he would hear nothing of it, angrily walking off denouncing my “white paternalism”, while I ended up apologising, “Sorry to have hurt you sir!”

I reflected on this throughout my exercises, wondering “what did I do wrong? What can I do differently?” I realised he had his own baggage of racial hurt, seeing me through his pain-filled lenses of umlungu, “the white man”. I probably represented his history of victimization from systematic top-down white paternalism.

While running around the circuit, panting quite loudly, my silent thoughts went like this:
“How tragic this is! We live in a context of such hurt, such heightened racial awareness and sensitivity, such projection and over-reaction. How can we recover our innocence, lost long ago in colonialism and apartheid? How can we heal the wounds of the past? Will we always be prisoners of our history? Is there any way to innocently, from the heart, greet people in a friendly manner, giving dignity and respect to all we meet every day? Surely this must be possible? Surely this can make a difference in the atmosphere of our nation, in the attitudes of people, as we undo the stereotypes in the eyes and minds of ‘the opposite other’ by being genuinely different, doing sincere acts of kindness, and being willing to absorb – with understanding patient grace – the pain that might come back at us. That’s what you did, Jesus. I’m simply your follower, Jesus, trying to learn from you how to live a life of love just as you loved us and gave yourself up for us. Please teach me to be like you, Jesus”

I don’t deny our history of racial pain and my complicit responsibility by virtue of the colour of my skin. But I’m NOT a victim of history, I’m a follower of Jesus, the One who heals and teaches us to give our lives in love of the other, no matter what race or gender, culture or creed, history or pain. Surely we can “Stop! Say Hello!” to those we meet every day, as my good friend Justin Foxton motivated some years ago. Any comments? Nkosi Sikelel’ iafrika!

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