Nelson Mandel’s said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And he should know, South Africa is a country of 11 official languages. TV shows here have multiple languages in just once sentence! I’m not quite sure how anyone can keep it straight. (Interestingly, that goes in reverse to. For my first 6-9 months here when ever I’d say Ngiyabonga (Thankyou) I didn’t actually feel like I’d thanked the person until I’ve said Thankyou in English. Rationally I knew that Ngiyabonga = Thankyou, but emotionally it took about 10 months for Ngiyabonga to feel like Thankyou.
You wouldn’t believe how far a simple greeting can go to bridge gaps between cultures and people. Often all I have to do is greet someone in SiSwati and not only will they be amazed that I “speak” SiSwati, but their whole attitude towards me changes. Greetings might not be as big a part of the culture here as else where in Africa, but I still say them hundreds of times a week, so it be pretty hard for me not to know them by now.
There are two versions of SiSwati greetings (well four if you count formal and nonformal versions, but that just complicates matters), but for this post I only want to talk about one. Here’s the formal SiSwati greeting between person A and B with a literal translation in the middle and roughly what one might say in America in a similar situation.
B: Siyaphila, nini ninjani
A: Nati siyaphila
|A: We see that you see us.
A: How are you all?
B: We are alive, how are you all.
A: We are also alive.
A: How are you?
B: Fine, you.
I absolutely love what this greeting means. Ngiyaphila, I am alive. It’s a deceleration of being and a subtle reminder of what ultimately and is truly important. In the end nothing else really matters. It’s pouring rain (or snowed over 3 ft). Siyaphila, We are alive. Overwhelmed with work and stressed about the ever growing ToDo list required to maintain normalcy and fight the entropy of life. Ngiyaphila, I am alive. The day didn’t go as planned, you broke your favorite cup, spilled tea on your laptop, lost your wallet or phone: Unjani? Ngiyaphila. How are you? I’m I alive!
But just as it’s important to remember your aliveness in those times when life throws you an inevitable curve ball unexpectedly and you feel like your treading water just to breath, its also important to be aware of the fact that uyaphilia (you are alive) when life seems beautiful, full, and peaceful. It’s really the same thing as counting your blessings. Being appreciative of a spectacular sun set. That sunset should make you sing; Ngiyaphila, I am alive. Eating a delicious meal, savor each moment of it and know that uyaphilia. Bought the coolest new gadget in the shop, marvel at the human ingenuity, tenacity, and industry that created it and know that uyaphilia. Going for a run, playing with kids, watching a bird make its nest, staring up at the stars, searching the internet, reading a book, watching TV, making dinner, doing the laundry; every action is a reason to remind yourself that you are alive and be grateful for the chance experience it with wonder and awe.
The essence of knowing your alive was eloquently stated by Paul Hawken at the University of Portland commencement address in 2009.
Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, … can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life.
This prompted me to do some research into what exactly happens in those septillion simultaneous activities. Obviously I’m no cell biologist and most my sources come for pages I found on the intertubes and would hardly stand up to scientific rigor, but that’s not what I’m going for. I’m going for the crux of what it means to be alive and that can not be found in anyone fact, it’s the sum total of all those septillion activities over each and every moment. However, it helps appreciate how undeniably amazing everything that is you does, just so you can be you.
There’s never nothing going on in your body. At an average heart rate of 80 beats per minute your heart beats 115 thousand times a day and 42 million times a year all to so about 25 trillion red blood cells (approximately a quarter of all your cells) can each complete a circuit of your body in about 1 min so that in one day 400 gallons of recycled blood are pumped through the kidneys. For a muscle that roughly adds 1 pound to our body weight that’s impressive. Each one of those red blood cells has a around 270 million hemoglobin molecules so that the total amount of iron in your blood is about 2.5 grams.
Estimates have placed the total number of cells in the body at 10-50 trillion. Of those 300 million cells die in the human body every minute. But not to worry; every day an adult body produces 300 billion new cells. The you today isn’t the same as the you of yesterday or the you of tomorrow.
Every square inch of the human body has about 19,000,000 skin cells. While in one square inch of our hand we have nine feet of blood vessels, 600 pain sensors, 9000 nerve endings, 36 heat sensors and 75 pressure sensors. You get a new stomach lining every three to four days. Just your feat along have 500,000 sweat glands and can produce more than a pint of sweat a day.
Keeping your body going takes a lot of work. You use 200 muscles just to take one step and that’s something you do thousands of times a day. All that work creates a lot of energy and in 30 minutes, the average body gives off enough heat (combined) to bring a half gallon of water to boil.
Most amazing of all is the 3 pound group of cells between our ears. When we touch something, we send a message to our brain at 124 mph. Nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as 170 miles per hour. This may pale in comparison to the speed at which electrical signals travel on a quad core computer processor. But the neural connection graph of the brain dwarfs any we have yet created in silicon. There are about 100,000,000,000 neurons in the adult brain each neuron being connected to between 2,000 and 5,000 others. In fact if you estimated the amount of energy needed not only to keep you thinking all day, but coordinating the great cellular symphony that is you in M&M’s it come out to around 250.
Below is a picture that I took of one of the kids I play with everyday after work. To me this picture emodies Siyaphilia. The aliveness each and everyone one of us feels and knows. Let it be a reminder to you so that the next time someone asks you how you’re doing you can replay with an enthusiastic: I am alive!
- Red blood cell – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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