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.