One of the reasons that expat life can feel so isolating is the lack of tangible community around us when we move to a new place, or when our friends leave, or when the holidays sneak up and we realize we don’t know anyone to eat Thanksgiving with.
Aid workers are a transient and isolated bunch, but research has shown that humans are social creatures and that we’re happiest when embedded in and contributing to a community.
So how do we connect, on a daily basis, and avoid the social isolation that comes from moving so often? Making friends in a new country takes time, and days can go by when we don’t reach out, we stay in and watch something on our laptops, and feel that much more isolated and alone.
I’ve noticed something in my new home, a small island community just off the Dakar mainland. There are no cars, so people traverse the island on narrow footpaths, often passing closer than you ever would on an urban street. Everyone, from beach boy hustlers to young couples holding hands, greets one another.
You see someone coming, and it doesn’t matter what time it is or what mood I’m in. I greet them. They greet me back. We might look into each other’s faces. Sometimes, but not always, we smile at each other. And we keep walking.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen that person already that day. They still give me a hello, and I’m expected to respond.
Greeting the people around me does something, over the days and weeks that I’ve lived here. I’m not allowed to be anonymous. I’m forced to acknowledge, verbally and with eye contact, that I’m seen and that I see the people around me.
Saying hello is like saying, “I see you. I wish you well,” to the person passing. Multiply that by a dozen, and you have a circle of goodwill, a community of acknowledgments that reminds you that you’re not isolated, you’re not alone.
I’m not going to start greeting everyone I pass in downtown Dakar, but in my neighborhood, why not?
“Doesn’t it get annoying, greeting everyone you see?” a visiting friend asked me as I bonjour-ed construction workers, a fruit seller and an old man passing, all interspersed between our conversation.
“Sometimes,” I admitted, but then I realized, these greetings create community. With every hello, I make the world around me a little bigger, and the people around me become a little friendlier, a little more known.
I like that.