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.


  1. Very interesting. I just read an article in the Working Centre's newsletter about the language we use. So powerful! Thanks for sharing this.

    P.S. I heard you showed some of your art at the last View From Here?! Wish I could've made it! :)

  2. mmm, i know the exact article you're talking about! it was written by my good friend leslie. I always go straight to her articles whenever a new newsletter comes out. :) and yes, I was at the View From Here, that's too bad I missed you. maybe one of these days we'll bump into each other somewhere other than cyberspace. :)