One of the things that’s struck me about South Africa is the sense of good manners by everyone I meet. From my LA sensibilities and skepticism -“Why are you talking to me?” this deserved further investigation. Rather than a stuffy set of societal rules that one must adhere to, I find that the easy-going politeness of Cape Town creates a friendly atmosphere in which it is easy to talk with strangers. These warm ways of engagement baffled me at first amidst a rather bewildering assortment of different knives, saucers, teacups and teaspoons. A part of my rather brief but pointed “cultural crash course” prior to arrival involved lessons in fork-and-knife usage. I was rather appalled, as one who has actually formally been trained in business meal etiquette, to find my skills so unrefined.
It wasn’t until a couple of meals with locals did I surreptitiously observe the difference between tongs-up and tongs-down. For of course, a civilized person must ‘place’ the food into one’s mouth, not ‘shovel it’. When I describe this to my new breakfast table friends, they laugh. “Well how do Americans eat breakfast?” they ask. “Do they shovel away?” Of course not, don’t be silly! We head through McDonald’s drive-through and gracefully unwrap our Sausage McMuffins in our fists, genteely biting our way through while driving one-handed to the office and talking politely on speakerphone with mouthfuls for our conference call.
But nuances aside, there’s cultural attitudes towards hospitality that goes far beyond simply being ‘polite’. Recently, I was invited to dinner by a fellow guest from Namibia, Martina, staying at Beulah Lodge. “Only if you have enough food!” I said. Little did I know this would be the last thing to worry about, as my generous hosts turned out entire sides of mutton brai, farmers sausage, tender roasts to feed an army. She shared with me about how she’d grown up cooking for a family of 17. Her father would always take just two bites from his plate, and then share it with someone else, until eventually the plate got passed through the whole village.
“So I began to cook more, for more people. And we share everything. All I ever wanted, was to cook enough food so my father could have a full plate to eat. And that meant filling the plates of all the others.”
The open-hearted sharing of hospitality honors ones guest, rather than highlight the division between the one giving, and the one accepting. A small custom I’ve observed at Beulah Lodge is that for everyone who comes through, is given a little touch of comfort in the grace of this great tradition called afternoon tea. This isn’t reserved simply for guests and patrons. Just the other day, the Lodge’s handyman came in to fix a long litany of things broken. Along the way, one of the maids prepared him a little tray filled with tea and tiny goodies, a brief oasis of peace and joy as he sat in the garden before going along in his full day.
When simple gestures help bring a touch of the Eternal life into common day occurrences, we begin to understand why the Bible characterizes Hospitality not as a function, but a gift. For those who want to learn more about how they can use their gifts to bridge divides and bring His presence into our daily spaces and activities, I recommend checking out Heartistry by Lyn Johnson.