I See You

Thursdays are busy days in my suburb. It is the day our rubbish and recycling is collected, and long before the trucks rumble down the road, the rubbish-gleaners arrive. The more ‘official’ ones drag a small cart behind them, with a large canvas bag stretched across it. Others carry plastic bags in which to hoard their small treasures. The most desperate ones of all don’t even have a bag. Their sole aim as they open bins, releasing flies and the stench of decay, is to look for anything that will fill their stomachs for an hour or two. Yes, Thursdays are busy days in my suburb.

Normally I barely glance at these marginalised people as I speed past them in my car. But today, I chose to go for a walk. At this slower pace and out on the street alongside them, I started to really see them. A few of them averted their eyes as I walked past, almost as if to say ‘this isn’t what I want to be doing.’ Others gave me a quick, slightly defiant glance before returning to the reeking bins.

Then something remarkable began to happen. As I started to hold their gaze and say ‘hello’, their strained faces generally broke into warm smiles. For just one instant, a simple greeting dismantled the barriers of mistrust and fear. This smallest of acts—acknowledging an unseen, usually invisible person in our fractured society—brought a brief moment of joy and connection.

The Zulu people of my country have a beautiful word of greeting—Sawubona. It means, “I see you.” Isn’t this what we all long for? To be seen. To be acknowledged. To be respected. Today the rubbish-gleaners and I truly saw each other. None of us gave particularly much—a greeting, a smile, a moment of shared humanity. Yet, in those small gifts lay a deep truth: we are not meant to live life alone. We need each other. Sawubona. I see you.



Bookmark the permalink.


  1. “I see you.” I love that.

  2. Oh Joan, that is so touching. I see you too.

  3. You got me thinking! What about the people at intersections and robots? They always say the opposite: avoid eye contact. You can’t acknowledge them and drive away?

    • I’m trying just to smile at them, but some vendors are pretty relentless and take you as an easy target if you do that. Just be discerning.

  4. Beautifully written Joan. So thought-provoking. You illustrate so well that a loving act of kindness can also simply be a smile. As they say, “A smile is universal, acceptable and inexpensive.” Thank you for a beautiful post.

  5. Heila Verster

    Joan just know that you blessed them with your smile. A touch with humanity in a life of struggling to exist.

  6. Yvonne Geldenhuys

    Love it, so true. I resent the dustbin diggers deeply…am trying to solve the problem by putting the plastic bottles out separately for them. But maybe, I should try to smile at them next time instead…and say Sawubona.

  7. Joan, that was a wonderful insight. Your encounter reminds me of Jesus’ with the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She tried to touch his cloak from behind thinking she was not worthy to be seen. Jesus acknowledged her before the the whole crowd, restoring her dignity. Interestingly enough He was on the way to heal the daughter of a VIP when he stopped everything for her.
    Yours was also a Christ-like action. Bless you.

  8. Diana Agbayani

    I love the word sabuwana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *