2 black women laughing with arms around each other

Embodied Hospitality

Andrea NwabuikeBlog, Wellbeing

A few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Bangkok, Thailand with my parents and some family friends, whom I affectionately refer to as my aunts and uncles. We spent ten days haggling in markets, feasting on seafood, and blasting the latest Afrobeat songs. By our final day, I was happily exhausted and ready to go home. But just before boarding the twelve-hour flight to our layover in Amsterdam, I fell horribly sick. Something I had eaten the previous night revolted against my body and I was not prepared for the fight. How would I get through a journey halfway across the world, trapped in a metal tube, while feeling more miserable than ever before? Without any answers or options, I boarded the plane. 

A few minutes after takeoff, one of my uncles came to check on me. His eyes were rimmed with worry. After speaking with a flight attendant, he brought me some crackers and pleaded with me to eat. “Pele,” he said before he returned to his seat. The Yoruba word can be translated as “sorry,” but is a far deeper expression of empathy for those who are struggling or in pain. A couple of hours later, my aunt came to my seat. “Pele,” she whispered as she squeezed my shoulder and passed me some mints. My aunts and uncles would check on me several times throughout our flight, always with a word of comfort, a small snack or drink, and an insistence that I eat something.

The care and compassion I received on that plane reminded me that hospitality does not require a house. Hospitality is a posture of kindness; the habit of inviting others to be at home in our presence. This is the type of hospitality that creates safety for those gripped by anxiety and provides comfort to those weighed down by loneliness. Embodied hospitality holds healing power for a world where suffering and pain abound. When I was sick, all I could think about was how desperately I wanted to go home. But when my aunts and uncles came to my seat and when my parents reached over to hold my hand, I was met by an embodied sense of home. Their presence assured me that I would be okay; that while I was the one in pain and discomfort, they would not allow me to suffer alone. I felt empowered to endure the next leg of our journey because the comfort of home had reached out to me through the hands and hearts of my loved ones. 

Despite a diversity of traditions and beliefs, hospitality is a way of life for most Africans. My Nigerian family is often hosting loved ones visiting Canada from abroad, pooling money to support those in need, and seeking to serve and encourage our neighbours. Joy multiplies and burdens diminish as we observe seasons of mourning and celebration together. This hospitable lifestyle is rooted in a collectivist worldview that sees the identity and wellbeing of the individual as inextricably tied to the identity and wellbeing of the community. The Zulu word Ubuntu, sometimes translated as “I am because we are,” is now a Pan-African phrase that conveys this understanding of human interconnectedness. As clinical psychologist Lonzozou Kpanake writes, “In the concept of Ubuntu, the self is perceived in relation to the group; that is, individuals are perceived not as entities that are independent from one another, but as part of an interdependent communal system.” [1]

There are several dangers of extreme forms of collectivism. Unhealthy patterns of dominance and control can develop when community expectations consume the needs and desires of the individual. Shame and stigma thrive in environments where the reputation of the group is preserved at all costs, leaving those experiencing mental health concerns particularly vulnerable to exclusion and rejection. But at their best, collectivist cultures emphasize a shared sense of responsibility for the mental, emotional, and physical health of each community member. Parents, aunts, uncles, and neighbours work together to ensure that the community flourishes. When a community member is suffering or in need, hospitality is a tool leveraged to restore them back to health. As one African proverb says, “Visitors’ footfalls are like medicine, they heal the sick.” This proverb highlights the healing power of hospitality, while subverting the idea that hospitality is solely the domain of the host. Those suffering in body and mind often struggle to feel at home within their own bodies. Trauma, anxiety, depression, and many other mental health challenges disrupt our sense of safety, both within ourselves and within the world. But when a visitor comes in the spirit of Ubuntu, they can provide an embodied vision of home that grounds, reassures, and comforts those in need. 

Africans do not have a monopoly on the practice of communal care. Regardless of ethnicity, Christians are called to be physical representations of our kingdom home. We see this dynamic at play in Acts 28 when, after narrowly escaping a shipwreck, Paul and his companions experience striking displays of hospitality by the Maltese people. But Paul was not just a passive recipient. He demonstrated kingdom hospitality while visiting the sick, praying for and laying hands upon them. As a conduit of God’s healing power, Paul invited the Maltese people into an experience of the home that awaits us beyond this life—a home where pain and misery have no place. When we demonstrate the love, peace, patience, and kindness of the Holy Spirit, we give those around us a taste of heaven. And when our brothers and sisters are weighed down by the trials and burdens of life, our presence is a means by which they can experience the comfort and solidarity of God, even in the midst of ongoing mental health challenges. With this kind of hospitality, we can even turn economy into a comfortable home. 


1. Although the word Ubuntu describes an aspect of human culture, it points to the divine reality of the Trinity and our nature as image bearers who have been designed to reflect the beauty of relational living.

Cover photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash


ANDREA NWABUIKE

Andrea’s life purpose is to use words to heal, both as a registered psychotherapist and as a writer. She currently provides mental health support to post-secondary students, with a special focus on varsity student-athletes. Her writing career has led her to explore the intersections of faith, race, ethnicity, and gender. Andrea’s work has been featured in Ekstasis Magazine, Faith Today and Love is Moving Magazine. When she isn’t writing articles or in the therapy room, you can find her eating plantain chips, watching Korean Dramas, or belting out 90s R&B classics.