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 café 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.