Recently I was grabbing a quick snack at a place in town when I experienced something quite common in South Africa but unfamiliar to the United States. A young lady sitting at the table to my left asked if the letter I was reading was a song. I explained that it was simply a letter someone had written me and that I wasn’t talented enough to write a song as long as that. She then asked if she could sit with me, and I didn’t see a reason why that would be a problem. After scooting over to my table, she asked my name and where I was from. (My accent is quickly noticed by everyone in South Africa, although not everyone can pinpoint its origin!) So after the initial points of the conversation, she asked me something that used to startle me a bit earlier in my term here.
She said, “Will you be my friend?”
“Of course I’ll be your friend,” I said with a smile. Her face lit up and she seemed elated that I agreed to be her friend. I knew that our newfound friendship would only consist of the immediate conversation we were having, but for her it meant more. It showed that we could accept each other and enjoy each other’s company. Our conversation only lasted about 15 minutes, but she opened up and told me things she may not have told me if I didn’t say I’d be her friend. The trust was established, and even though I was a white man she found it easy to confide in me as her new friend. As we both went our separate ways, I couldn’t help but smile at the beauty of the acceptance in people’s hearts here.
I have been asked “will you be my friend?” by strangers a number of times this year. Mainly, the question comes from children I work with or come across during my experiences. This question coincides with how most of the children I work with act. The children in this part of the world are not shy and not afraid of “strangers.” We in the United States are taught from an early age the “stranger=danger” scenarios, and rarely will go up to people we don’t know. But here, children will run up to you and give you the biggest hug they can muster. They will grab you hand, walk with you and ask you if you’ll be their friend. Sometimes all they can say is “Papa!” or “Mama!” when they greet you. This is because the sense of community here is so strong, and such a part of the people’s foundation. Again, it plays to the concept of Ubuntu, where “people are people through other people.” It doesn’t matter if you grow up in the township or rural area, everyone around you is considered family. That is why the children call any person older than them “papa” and “mama.” It’s why the children are unabashed to literally run up to you and embrace you in a loving hug. It’s why holding hands with someone you don’t know, even a white American, is simply part of life. It’s why everyone is accepted for who they are.
The powerful sense of community here is something we can all learn from. Instead of growing up in fear of the dangers that others may bring, why not grow up loving and accepting everyone in your life? The children here don’t see race or economic status, they see people as people. Let us learn from this and start asking the question, “will you be my friend?” a little more often.