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The first time a hug between two people startled me was in 2000. When I saw dad tightly hug mum in public along Moyale’s main street, I was flustered! Up to then, I had only ever seen people hugging when I had the opportunity to watch television, mainly when I visited my dad’s family in Tuqa, a small centre 20 kilometres north of Moyale in Ethiopia, where I also watched a  film on the life of Jesus Christ projected by missionaries. I remember also seeing people embrace when I watched Titanic in the house of our Yemeni family friends where we used to go for madrassa (Islamic school).

I figured out later in life that my parents were just two people exchanging greetings, but my mum, the less educated one, was generally not sure what to do when dad — the more educated and more widely travelled one —  would try to hug her in the middle of Moyale town.

A hug is not a common way of exchanging greetings among my people. However, people around us in Moyale town, especially those we call worri olli (“the people of the far up” — people of other ethnic origins who have come from deep inside Ethiopia to settle in Moyale) do shake hands and embrace each other tightly whenever they meet. At home, our hugs are brief when we do hug, and mum is now used to embracing, prompted by the longing to see us after many months away from home.

Staying away from my village for prolonged periods makes me miss people, places, words, and even greetings. This reminds me of what Ako Malicha, the oldest among our family members, said just before I went away to boarding high school. “Ako,” she said, “You will miss even the last shade you sat under.” Over the years I have missed many of them: the shade of the big cassod tree in Adi Haro village in Somare, and the old pink bougainvillea bush at the homestead of the late Sara Adi in Moyale.

Recently, two friends greeting each other at Sagana — the first common stopover for buses going from Moyale to Marsabit — brought back memories of my friends in Moyale. Theirs was a strange form of greeting that I had not encountered in a while.

A guy (let’s call him Samad), shortly after alighting from a bus, runs towards another guy (let’s call this one Abdi) and excitedly squeals, “Alaa, Abdiii!” Samad cannot not contain his joy at seeing his friend. Samad strikes his head thrice with the palm of his hand and Abdi does the same, and then they rush towards each other, oblivious of the onlookers.

As is the custom in Moyale, they pat each other on the back, and do the Ethiopian shoulder bump. The exchange goes from “Worra yabadhe mani!” Guy, you are lost these days! (Note, no I have missed you here) to “MashaAllah” to “InshaAllah”, the filler words in most conversations around here.

About the Ethiopian shoulder bump; usually, when friends meet, they stretch their hands and bend towards each other, hug each other, withdraw from each other’s embrace and each hits his right shoulder lightly against the other’s left shoulder three or more times.

This form of greeting is more common in Ethiopia’s Moyale than in Moyale, Kenya. Having lived on either side of the border, I usually make it hard for my Kenyan friends. First, I do the hug and add some exotic Oromo phrases like “Jirta?” Are you alive? Are you holding up well? After messing people with the shoulder bump, I go, “Malfakati?!” which loosely translates to “How is it like?” Then, at the point of parting, I go “Nujiradhi, nuturi!” Live for us! Grow old for us!

The words exchanged between Samad and Abdi are commonplace in Moyale, especially on the Kenyan side. Being cosmopolitan, Moyale is a blend of cultures from various ethnic communities: Burjis, Somalis, Arabs, Boranas, Garris, Gabras, and every section of the town has its art. Young folks from around the old part of the town speak Swahili more often than those who like me come from Somare, or from the eastern suburbs such as Heillu.

Having lived on either side of the border, I usually make it hard for my Kenyan friends.

The saying that “In every town, there are layers of villages” is very true. In Moyale town, you will hear a mix of Somali, Swahili, and Borana languages in a single greeting: “Warya, Vipi? Yaa-badhe mani!” Guy, how are you? You are lost lately! Or “Akkami? Akkami?” “How are you?’ repeatedly. The mix of these greetings from these small places produces strange pleasantries.

Whenever I hear these greetings, I am transported to a specific place. For Moyale, Kenya, I remember Soko Bale (market centre) where the town’s largest clothing merchants are to be found, Manyatta Burji, an up-and-coming marketplace, Butiye, which serves as the political epicentre, and Gurumesa, the town’s religious hub.

These greetings are uttered in the many miraa dens that dot every marketplace in the town. When greeting people in these places and in their miraa bases, you must choose your words keenly to make an excellent bargain. In Gurumesa, be a devout Muslim and garnish all your greetings with MashaAllah and InshaAllah. In the town centre use a bit of Swahili, and when in Odda, a small centre a few kilometres from Moyale town, or in Somare, stick to good Borana greetings.

On the Ethiopian side, professionals will use mostly Amharic in their greetings.  Their Amharic has a touch of English for the elite: “Fine-now, adeeli?” It is okay, right?

Moyale town is shared between two regional states — the Oromia and Somali states. Tom Gardner of the Guardian calls it a town where three flags fly, and where ethnic territorialism is manifested through the names of the shops: those on the Oromo side have Oromo names, and those on the Somali side have Somali names.

In your greetings, if you are in Oromo, be formal, respectful, and perhaps even secular, but if you are in Somali, sounding like a Muslim will grant you access to the goodies of the community. A little Amharic and a cross hanging from your neck  symbolize thriving on the Oromo side where most elites are Christians. Your greetings in Afaan Oromo are a good start in Mootummaa Naannoo Oromiyaa; a good command of the Somali language will be a blessing in the Dawlada Deegaanka Soomaalida, the official title of the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia.

In Kenya’s Moyale, greetings in Swahili and English are only suitable for those in the lower ranks of the local administration but if you have an excellent command of an ethnic language, your stature in the community immediately goes up.

A little Amharic and a cross hanging from your neck is a symbol of thriving on the Oromo side where most elites are Christians.

A candidate for Member of Parliament for Moyale was once dismissed because “He doesn’t even know how to greet people.” Those with good “speech”, like Hon. Roba Duba, survive even an acrimonious fallout with the Gada system — the apex of Borana’s political structure.

Greetings in political speeches are long and a good cocktail of languages brings you one step closer to power; those whose speeches are peppered with anecdotes, wise sayings and word plays are generally considered to be the most discerning of all.

Greetings determine the course of a political conversation during campaigns. For instance, one goes as follows: “Borana yoyah! Amale yoyah! Boni bate robi gete? Wani qabdhani chufani, nagaa qabdu? Nami sai issi nagaa?” Greetings Borana! Greetings once more, have you survived the drought and enjoy the rains? Do you have peace in all that you own? Are all your people and properties at peace?

These words, or a variation of them, will be spoken and the names of those who master this introduction will travel from Dire (a centre in Borana Zone) to Liban (a centre in Guji Zone).  Both are political towns of the Borana and historically the seats of Borana political leadership. One elder commented. To survive in Borana politics, mastering greetings  is foundational.

Each place has its unique attributes, and in Moyale, the way you greet people matters. In Ethiopia’s Moyale, you must distinguish between the greetings for the young and for the old — in the local language, of course. Because of Swahili’s dominance in Kenya’s Moyale, greetings do not necessarily follow the Amharic language protocol. Where the Islamic religion is predominant, a sprinkle of Arabic words affords you some degree of acceptability. In all, adopt the greetings from the other community’s language and thrive. The opposite is also true.