Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Refer to Strangers

Yesterday my friend told me that one of his professors had taken to calling him “sir” as of late. The title appalled him.

Born in Ethiopia, he became a refugee in Kenya, and is now a permanent resident of Canada. Given this background, the term “sir” has colonial connotations for him. It brought to his mind the image of a powerful white man – someone to be feared.

I was genuinely intrigued by this. I use the title “sir” (as well as “miss” or “ma’am”) when serving customers in the cafĂ© where I work. At the same time, I’m pretty committed to uprooting the withered roots of colonialism. If there was a contradiction between these two things, I wanted to remedy it.

So I asked him: “What kiswahili word would you use to acknowledge a stranger?”

His reply was simple and succinct: “Ndugu.” Brother.

Language is powerful. Use it for good.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011