Indaba, Community and A Pandemic

Professor Palmer

Written by Michael Palmer (Communication, Media & Culture)

Indaba is a robust Zulu word which means to confer, parley, and connect. It has to do with discussing and sorting things out, where each one has a voice, with the hope of achieving a common mind.

The yesteryear TV show Cheers was a success in part because of the appeal lodged in the lyrics of its signature song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”  Some of the words are,

“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from your worries, sure would help a lot.  Wouldn’t you like to get away?  Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…”

These fit the slightly nobler rallying cry of Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers, “All for one and one for all.”

There are reasons indaba and cheers and the musketeers resonate so broadly, so deeply. They are grand notions which tap into a primal ache. In our busy and not so seamless lives; in our stitched together patchwork worlds of events and shifting coalitions between people and nations, there is a timeless longing for meaningful community and connection and place.

The subtitle of Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place, says it well: “Cafes, Coffee shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day.”  To these you could add classrooms, libraries, clubs, reading groups, and athletic teams, etc.  These are places of refuge where people can be tethered to others, have a sense of belonging, and even a temporary amnesia to life’s weights.

The wild intrusion of a pandemic challenges and alters so much. On one hand it helps to crystalize what is and isn’t important, and who and what professions need to be high on the list of what really matters to a civilized and healthy society. It also brings to bear the danger and damage of too much social isolation, while striking a happy medium between FOMO and JOMO (‘fear of missing out’ and ‘joy of missing out’). It highlights the baked in design for both solitude and hospitality.

This is implicitly known and it shows up in our words… from the Italian ‘andra tutto bena’ to the Chinese ‘jinyou’, they say the same thing, ‘together, apart’.

We are hardwired for collaborative places that bristle at staying tucked behind well-manicured lawns—those protective moats which keep the barbarians at bay.  That resist settling for the isolated, the sedentary, and the inhospitable.  And that resist the calcified living where dreams and what makes you come alive are crowded out, and replaced with predictable and unremarkable days.

Being with a group is to taste a cafeteria of variety.  It could be made up of some who live under the tyranny of the past, of old wounds and fears, or sheer volume; of others who simply have too much starch in their DNA; and still others who are just overwhelmed by the number of things on their plate, and by the speed at which they live.

And then there are those who wear tilted halos admirably, who are steady, who notice you, and with whom you never feel marginalized or like a postscript, a footnote, or an afterthought.  They are the counterweight to insincere, fickle, and selfish people. They are an indispensable plus to these places of connective tissue…. because people need to feel seen.

They also don’t rely on verbal sleight of hand or empty chatter. Words are too important to them and they are aware that the reality of our social world can hang on the thin thread of conversation. They inject a vigor into otherwise anemic lives by insisting that there is a destination for homeless minds and gypsy lives, and that getting there is best done together.

This is the living out of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called ‘a theology of the other’…. seeing God’s face in the faces of the stranger, the neighbor, the displaced, and the refugee.

To come across anyone cut from this cloth is to fuse with people who are contagious and engaging, and who help other people’s imaginations catch fire with a laugh out loud response to life. They are able to transform the mortifying experiences of everyday life into bearable living. They want more, and are the ones C. S. Lewis said “had a talent for happiness in a high degree. They went straight for it the way experienced travelers go for the best seat on a train.” And they are just good to be with.

Forgetting how to dance and settling for thinly disguised lives is what the poet Mary Oliver was asking about when she wrote, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” The point is to not end up simply having visited this world, and to not surrender fierceness. The triple threat is to do nothing, to do it alone, or immersed in a virtual world. Because they involve a human disconnect which resembles a submarine navigating through water. It is in the water but insulated from it.

In short, there is indaba and community, even in and also beyond a pandemic. And this is proof positive that in or out of quarantine, there is extraordinary value in good communication… not the ornamental, but the sacramental and communal.

This goes a long way to explain why life in a good group can be so wonderfully meaningful, and why those missed are looked forward to. Their absence feels like an amputation of sorts, with the twin sensations of phantom limb and phantom pain.

 So at the dimming of the day, what rounds us out, what avoids distance from others, is the notion that there are people and places where your name is known and where they’re always glad you came, where this is good for one and good for all, and… where indaba is the watchword.

And where, if you leave for a while, you are missed while gone, glad to have you come back, and will be there to meet you at the train station to hear your stories.