Sawubona is an isiZulu greeting, equivalent to Hello or Namaste. Literally translated as “I see you”, sawubona is more than a polite greeting. Sawubona says: “I respect you, I value you, you are important to me”. It is a recognition of the worth and dignity of the person you are greeting.
Grammatically, sawubona is plural, actually meaning “we see you”. The reason that the plural “we” is used rather than “I”, is that in the Zulu tradition “I” is connected to an ancient lineage of ancestors, whereby my ancestors are always with me. So, when I meet you and greet you, it is not only myself that is doing so, but also my ancestors whom I am representing.
In the amaZulu culture, the premise is that all human beings are good, that we come into the world desiring security, love, peace and happiness. The Zulus maintain that human beings exist only if others see them and accept them, it is the community that makes the person. We have all heard the maxim: ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, an idea that is fundamental to many African cultures. In the Zulu tradition, when someone in the tribe behaves inappropriately, instead of punishing them, they are taken into the centre of the village, surrounded by the entire community who remind the person of all the good things that they have done, their qualities and their virtues. When this happens, everyone repeats “Sawubona”, which means “I see all of you, your experiences, your passions, your pain, your strengths and weaknesses and your future. You are valuable to me.” The person then responds with “Shikoba”, which means “so, I am good, I exist for you”. The purpose of these meetings is to remind the person of their importance to community, placing them back on the path of good, of harmony and of joy. There is the understanding that these words are so much more than greetings, they are ways of communicating that to a person that they are loved and valued.
Without exception, we all need to be reminded that we are indeed seen, we are loved, and we are valued. Let us learn to really see one another, to accept others as they are and, to forgive mistakes. In doing so, perhaps we can promote more cohesion between people.
Sawubona – I see you.