Sawubona - I see you
There is no replacement for experience. She is a teacher like no other. We can learn something, read about something, know something all we want but until we experience something, we can never really fully realize it.
It took me a while to acclimate to properly greeting in Zulu. When I first got comfortable with my “sawubona,” hello in Zulu, I excitedly used it as I did my hellos in the US. As someone approached and was close enough to hear my voice, I would offer my “sawubona”. I quickly learned I was actually being rude in Zulu culture and people thought I was stating my greeting in jest.
Here in KwaZulu Natal Province, one waits until you are essentially in someone’s personal space to greet another person. If you are from the West and are reading this, picture yourself in this situation. You’ve made eye contact with someone, are approaching them and you cannot utter a thing until you are in each other’s close proximity. How would you feel? For me, this felt awkward. Despite learning early on in my Zulu language lessons that “sawubona” translates to “I see you,” I didn’t fully understand its meaning until I experienced it this week.
Years ago, I fell in love with photography. I love the concept of capturing a moment in time from one’s unadulterated, inarguable perspective. I prefer not to edit or use filters on my own work, as I relish the purity of a moment as I saw it. I love the notion of not altering an image so that it speaks to the moment as it was. I appreciate other’s photography as an insight into their view of the world, the ideal way to walk in another’s shoes. As a visual learner, I think and learn best through imagery. Photography is a powerful medium of expression and the quintessential time capsule. This past week, it was an incredible tool for my own self-reflection.
I’ve hidden behind the lens for years, as I’m not the biggest fan of having my picture taken. Only recently have I succumbed to selfies and they usually feel more awkward that awaiting a greeting. A friend captured a couple photos of me on a travel adventure last week and I was awed in seeing myself in a different way. In looking at the pictures, I’m elated to say that I saw my own joy and light looking back at me. I saw myself happy.
I celebrated 8 months in country this week and I’m proud of the woman I see in those pictures. I’m proud of her for laboring through all the unexpected emotional and spiritual work of these last 8 months. Before coming to South Africa, I questioned my ability to endure the anticipated physical hardships of Peace Corps service. I was unsure that my being in my late 30s would allow me to get used to bucket bathing, pit latrines and living without running water. I feared that I’d never sleep during my service, as villages have a reputation for being loud and I have a reputation for being the world’s lightest sleeper. I’ve pushed through antagonism from sources that should be allies. I’ve dealt with discomfort and not knowing what is happening during nearly 95% of my day. I’ve worked through water and food scarcity, household repairs and cultural misunderstandings with a mindset of self advocacy, preservation and perspective. I’ve practiced radical self care, stretched myself far beyond my comfort zone and intentionally stepped outside myself and a fixed mindset on numerous occasions. I’ve felt deep compassion, empathy and despair, a loneliness I’d never anticipated and growth in ways I didn’t recognize I needed. I’ve witnessed a deep-set resilience among the people of South Africa. Grit conjured through history, the Apartheid and the HIV and poverty epidemics having imparted wounds that perhaps time, love, acknowledgement, forgiveness and empowerment may heal.
I set out 8 months ago for service. I set out to help, to give of myself and my light. I set out to volunteer. I never realized how much personal development was involved in Peace Corps service. It’s as if I signed up for altruism and instead received a perpetual period of introspection. I describe this Peace Corps experience as a roller coaster. The ups and downs are intense, drastic and frequent. However, I’m finally starting to feel as if I’m buckled in, secure and *gulp* ready for the ride. I’ve extended my support system and regularly identify and implement the tools I need to sustain myself. I’m proud of the woman who’s light I identify in the recent pictures. She recognizes that her liberation is bound to the work she came here to do.
Through experience, I now fully understand the reasoning and meaning behind “sawubona” and waiting to greet until I’m in one’s personal space. Being close and truly seeing is the only way we can witness another being. Forgoing the distance from me to you, I can see you.
It’s as if I’ve awaited this moment for years. Looking at those pictures were akin to that awkward approach, eye contact and all, patiently awaiting myself to enter my own personal space, until I could recognize my own company, my own reflection, my own humanity. Forgoing the distance between me to me, I can truly see myself.
It’s as if I’m finally seeing myself in this moment for the very first time. One of my intentions of my service is to stand with confidence on my own two feet in this great big world of ours. Though I recognize I have a lot more work to do until I can affirm the fulfillment of that intention, I’m proud to say that I’m on my way.
I invite you to explore similar self-inquiry. Though there are many ways to do this, here are two avenues in which to begin:
Gather several pictures of yourself. They may be recent photos or those from various chapters of your life. Feel free to either sit with your favorite journal or in meditative inquiry taking some quiet time to look at yourself in the pictures.
Then, ask yourself what is reflected back to you. What you see? What emotions are present? What energy or messages do you hold about yourself?
Mirror work is another option. Stand in front of a mirror and look into your own eyes. This may be extremely uncomfortable at first, but this is some of the most profound work any of us can do. Ask yourself the same questions above. As you gaze into your eyes, what is reflected back to you? What you see? What emotions are present, what energy or messages do you hold about yourself?
At the end of your mirror work, you may practice one of my favorite affirmations from Louise Hay as you continue looking at yourself in your reflection and say: “I love you and I’m beginning to make positive changes in my life right now. Day by day, I will improve the quality of my life. It is safe for me to be happy and fulfilled.” You may notice emotions arising as you engage in mirror work. It may take several attempts before you adjust to mirror work. It’s all perfect and it’s all okay.
Finally, I’ve been sitting with the words of Aboriginal activist Lily Walker. May they likewise inspire you, “if you come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us begin.”
I aspire to relay the emotional and spiritual journey of my Peace Corps service here in South Africa. I am grateful and honored you’ve chosen to join me. ♥
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