Welcome. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary it is defined as a way to greet hospitably and with courtesy or cordiality or to accept with pleasure the occurrence or presence of. It’s a word I thought I knew the meaning of until I took a 30-hour trip around the world to a speck floating along the Indian Ocean named Comoros. In America, we are conditioned to be possessive. We are taught to work for our own luxuries, rewards, and material possessions. We know sharing is caring but that statement comes prefaced with the idea to ask if it’s not yours and wrapped in it’s not polite to ask in general. Social rules we adhere to and follow closely, keeping guard over what is ours a tad bit aggressively. Yet, these islands are known for their ‘Karibu’ attitude. Whether you are a stranger or a long lost best friend, you are always treated like family, welcomed into the fold as if you never belonged elsewhere. It’s an attitude that caught me off guard. Surprised me when I first arrived to my host family’s home and was engulfed in a hug and introduced to anyone who stopped by as my host parent’s eldest daughter. I thought I knew what hospitality, generosity, and a warm welcome was until I stepped foot on to a land I never even heard of and was proven wrong.
Whether it is water I need or I stumbled upon someone eating, the first word utter in my direction before even hello is Karibu. I’m welcomed to share meals with people I barely even know, to enter homes of complete strangers, and to even walk in to their yards and take water from the hose regardless of if they’re home. Here nothing is yours or mine, it is all ours and for a girl that grew up in Brooklyn, it’s a complete 180 from the hard edges that make the concrete jungle I know as home. It’s taken some adjusting to, some flexibility of the mind to understand just how little boundaries exist when it comes to something as trivial as things. In America, I would balk if someone just walked into my home and sat down as if nothing was out of the ordinary, if someone just reached into a fellow bus rider’s bag and handed me a loaf of bread because they were eating and thought I should eat too. Here meals are prepared to feed the family, the neighbors, and whatever stragglers are left still trying to find their way. It takes a village has never rang more true.
When I first arrived to site, I ended up in a conversation with a man that by Comorian standards was well traveled. He had spent some time living in Madagascar, South Africa, and Paris, a rarity in a country that the majority of its citizens never find the means to leave. Yet, when I asked him where he would rather live if money were never an issue his response was Comoros. “Here, he said, there is never an individual struggle. If you are hungry and don’t have enough to eat you go to your neighbors, If you need somewhere to live you tell the village elders and you will find yourself wrapped in a blanket, tucked into a bed in someone’s home. If you need money to go to school or to fix the roads or to accomplish a project, the village will come together and help you achieve your goals. Whatever it is, whether the help be small or big, there will always be someone besides yourself to help you carry the load.” Even the word for near here is karibu. When I asked why that was I was told it’s because if someone can walk to you, they should always be welcomed because their struggles are as much yours as they are theirs.
In America, generosity and welcome come at a cost of social grace and an expected reimbursement of whatever was given in the first place. Here, whether I stop by for a visit tomorrow or four months from now, bearing no gifts and a need of something in return, I would never be shunned or turned away. The first word uttered in my direction would be Karibu and a smile of thanks would be more then enough to get me through.
Be Bold, Be Brave, Be-YOU-tiful