The expression ‘karibu tena‘ used to pleasantly surprise me during my first visit to Tanzania.
It is used in the bank or a restaurant, but also when visiting someone or when returning from a trip.
It’s one of the wonderful things in Swahili culture which always brings a smile to my face.
It’s not necessary to know each other in depth or being aware of details of the absence — it’s a genuine greeting for anybody coming back.
Having just returned from a trip to Europe this week I’m warmed by the enthusiastic ‘welcome back’ reaction from people.
Those working in our house, such as security guards and the house help, give me big smiles and warm words.
Others who only know me by face from the roads nearby react in a similar way.
I make a point of bringing small gifts for our workers as I know the importance of the gesture.
But others ask for a gift in a very direct manner, especially those on the road.
‘How was your trip and where’s my gift?’
I used to feel uncomfortable having to defend myself for not handing around things to people I hardly know.
These days I can take it more as part of social exchange, meaning something like ‘happy to see you again.’
Yesterday I passed a guy who sits outside a nearby gate day after day as security guard.
For years we’ve been greeting each other whenever I pass and he sits.
Now he asks me for his gift and I reply, ‘I don’t know what you like.’
Easy, he’d like a ‘baisikeli‘.
I laugh, but my objection that bicycles are difficult to carry by plane doesn’t impress him.
So I tell him, ‘maybe next time.’
Now we’re good again.
For me, the underlying feeling of these ‘karibu tena‘ exchanges is one of security: having people watching my steps and registering whether I’m coming or going.