Spreading African Hospitality

by Lauren Wells

We moved in 2020 from Oregon to South Carolina, USA. Having experienced moves before where I put off developing friendships because, “What’s the point? I won’t be here long anyway”—I decided I wanted to dive in and build rich relationships quickly. Upon arrival, I found a book club to attend, a church for our family to try, and a mom group to check out. More than once I met someone whom I felt I hit it off with, we would exchange phone numbers, then I would reach out to invite her and her family over for dinner and I would never hear back. I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. 

A few months after living there, I traveled for work and took an Uber (a car ride service) home from the airport. The driver was a man (we’ll call him David) whose accent I quickly noticed was East African. After talking for a moment, I asked, “Where are you from?” 

“Uganda,” he said. 

“I grew up in Tanzania!” I replied. 

“Do you speak Swahili?” he asked. Then we chatted in Swahili the rest of the drive home. I learned that while he was from Uganda, he had also spent time living in Tanzania and Kenya. He had moved to America only six months before and hadn’t met many other people from Africa. He was delighted to have the opportunity to speak Swahili. 

When we pulled up to my house, I said, “Can I get your number? My husband and I would love to have you over for dinner sometime.” We exchanged numbers and a couple of weeks later he came over to watch a football (soccer) match and eat Tanzanian food. 

While sitting around the table eating ugali with our hands he said to my husband, “Your wife is so African! She said that she lived in Tanzania but when she invited me for dinner after just meeting, I knew she was really African. That is African hospitality. We invite people to share a meal like they’re family.” 

Up until he said that, I had never thought of my eagerness to have people over for dinner as a part of my African TCK upbringing. I simply loved cooking, hosting people, and giving people a place where they could come and be themselves. After thinking about it, though, I realized that it was very connected to how I experienced hospitality in Africa. I have so many memories of meeting someone and being immediately invited over for chai or a meal. Sometimes a new friend would just grab my hand and walk me to their house right at that moment! We would sit around a giant pot and all eat from the mound of food in the middle of the table or floor. It was uninhibited and beautiful and you left feeling like you had become close friends or even part of the family. I think this is what I had been yearning for. I got a taste of it when David came over to share a meal. 

A while later, I was expressing my confusion about a lack of response to my invitations for dinner to a friend who had previously lived in South Carolina. She said, “Oh, it’s no wonder they didn’t respond. That is way too intimate too quickly. You scared them off by being so forward!” She explained that the protocol for spending time with a new friend is that you do something outside the home a few times together (get coffee, meet at the park with the kids, etc.), then you can go out to eat at a restaurant with your family and their family together, then if that goes well and you’re pretty good friends at that point, you can invite them into your home. But you would NEVER start by inviting someone to your home.

It all made sense, my desire to show that level of hospitality and the reason why I was seemingly failing at developing new, deep relationships. It was a cultural difference in how hospitality is experienced and expressed. Neither all bad nor all good, just different. 

I started to be hospitable in the way it is well received in the culture of South Carolina and found that it went surprisingly well. After a while, we did have some new friends over for dinner and I was able to do the in-home hosting I love. It is amazing to me that years into my adult TCK life I’m still discovering parts of myself that were impacted by my TCK experience. It was fascinating to find that hospitality is one of those impacted areas. 

It was a cultural difference in how hospitality is experienced and expressed. Neither all bad nor all good, just different.

Lauren Wells is the Founder and Director of TCK Training and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids: A Practical Guide to Preventive Care and The Grief Tower: A Practical Guide to Processing Grief with Third Culture Kids. She specializes in practical, preventive care for Third Culture Kids and their families. She has worked with over 1,000 parents and TCK caregivers and has trained staff from over 60 organizations. Lauren spent her developmental years in Tanzania, East Africa, and now lives in South Carolina, USA, with her husband and two children.

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