Do you ever think about how often you say thank you?’ In Somali it is “Waad mahadsantahay,” which means, “you are thanked.” But in Somalia people don’t say that very often. Djiboutians don’t say thank you either, though sometimes a French ‘merci’ might sneak into conversation. They say, “give me water” and when you give it to them, they drink it. That’s it. To Americans, that seems rude. But if you think about it, our overuse of the words “thank you” is a little goofy.
Yesterday I spent $150 at the grocery store. The cashier handed me a receipt. And I said “thank you.”
Thank you for what? For the opportunity to spend lots of money? For the chance to wait in a line behind a group of Japanese soldiers each paying individually for candy bars, unable to figure out the new coins? For the thrill of navigating a cart on squeaking wheels? And did I even mean it? Did I feel thankful? Not really. Does that make me a liar?
Before I understood the Djiboutian attitude toward gratitude, I was mad. I brought watches, earrings, purses, perfume, sunglasses, sandals, and lacy black bras from America as gifts. When I gave them to my friends they barely glanced at the gifts. They set them on the couch or on the table or shoved them into the bottom of their bags and I usually never saw them again. No, “thank you,” no “how nice, you thought of me,” no “it’s just my size.”
I wondered why I bothered to bring gifts back at all. I could think of a lot of other things that could fit in my luggage. Peanut butter and novels (in the dark ages before Kindles) and sunblock and brown sugar …
“You bring them because we tell you to,” my friend, Awo, said. “And if you came back from a trip with nothing we would call you hunguri weyn (greedy, literally ‘big throat’) and stop being your friend.”
“But why doesn’t anyone ever say thank you?” I asked.
“Why should we thank you?”
I threw up my hands. “I spent money, time, thought on you.”
“No one even acknowledges the gift,” I said. “They just hide it away and it’s like I never brought anything but they demand it every time I leave.”
“I don’t know why you think you did anything for us,” Awo said. “Who provided the money? Who gave you your mind to think about us with? Who directed you to the store and to the exact items we wanted? Who developed the friendship between us in the first place? I don’t know why you think gift-giving has anything to do with you. If we should say thank you to anyone, it should be to Allah. People don’t thank you because they are thankful to God for you, your friendship, and for the gift. It isn’t about you, it is about Him.”
Awo smiled at my silence. “Plus,” she said, “you bring such nice things. We don’t want to break them or have them stolen. We only wear the jewelry and carry the purses and wear the bras to weddings, not to work. Maasha Allah.” Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to God, that’s more like it. Thanks to God for the money to buy the groceries we need and even some we don’t need. Thanks to God for a convenient, well-stocked store. Thanks to God for life and breath and everything else.