On Life, love and Politics

"Random musings about Life, love and Politics. Just my open diary on the events going on in the world as I see it."

Why the handshake is a disappearing act in Africa April 21, 2010

Filed under: Culture — kikenileda @ 1:06 AM


Some bow heads or lie prostrate; others kiss as they banter, but still, the inquisitive handshake has grown to symbolise friendly greetings in Africa.

Deep in Kianjokoma, a small village in the eastern side of Kenya, women shake hands, even hug as they wait for their Sunday service. There is even a moment on their families, how the past week has been. This is a sharp contrast to a scene in central Nairobi where women arrive in their cars, walk straight to the church and have little time to catch up after the service. There is work waiting back in the house, or a family outing to attend.

This is a new dawn in African cities where hugs and pecks, that dominate television screens, seem to be taking over from the handshakes. The more impersonal “hi and hello on the run” have also become trendy in cities, something that would have earned someone a curse a few years ago in some African villages.

Symbolise respectOn handshakes, there are no clear records on when some African communities adopted the practice, but there are indications that it’s a foreign rite that Africa has domesticated to mean different things and even performed in different styles.

For the Lozi people of western Zambia, whenever one met their folks, they knelt and clapped as the other reciprocated to symbolise respect, thereafter, they kissed each other’s palms and shook hands.

But with busy schedules that are pushing people and some health concerns, these customs are fading away, even in Lozi community.

After a five-year absence from their rural home, my friend’s 80-year-old grandmother told them: “I know you young ones you feel disgusted when we do this (spit) to you, but anyway, I will do it. It’s our culture.”

Although greetings are still exchanged, the tone, brevity and body gestures attached to these salutations are somewhat discourteous or done routinely without the deeper cultural significance.    

The respect and titles accorded to elders in the past are slowly giving way, except in some rural areas. Folktales recited by elders in times of yore are no longer there, hence affecting the relaying of cultural norms, which included greetings.

That as it may – traditionalists still strive to keep Zambian customs alive amidst push from global trends.

English accents

In Nigeria, a similar trend seems to take over. Among most ethnic groups, the Yoruba's concept of ‘respect’ remains dramatic, very traditional. For the Yorubas, who have largely resisted Western influences, greeting an elder, a traditional ruler or a similar revered figure, must be accompanied by a physical demonstration of reverence. It is gender determined too.

The males in Yoruba lie prostrate while the females kneel. In traditional societies, it is seen as a mark of good breeding and a child/younger ones who fails to do so is made to repeat it publicly with the elders sending insults to the parents for failing in their duties.

But even with these strict cultural adherences, Yoruba greetings are changing slowly too. First, the pervasiveness of the English language in many homes, regardless of the social class, has eroded this aspect of Yoruba culture. Many children in urban homes do not understand Yoruba and many private schools promote the idea that studying indigenous languages was antithetical to development. Also, for Yorubas, a young wife does not call children in her husband’s family by name. She has to carve out a pet name to call such a child as a sign of respect. Most of the women who have gone through Western education do not adhere to such anymore.

The popular praise name oriki, used in reciting endearing praises, is no longer popular. Children named in church/ mosques tend to take Biblical/Quranic names or something that reflects the faith of the parents.

A professor and scholar of Yoruba language, Akinwunmi Isola and his counterpart Pa Adebayo Faleti, have blamed this anomaly on the pervasiveness of foreign culture.

“We have said it several times that children should learn the Yoruba language and culture. It does not affect their learning English.”

Cultural pride

Other ethnic groups are not as expressive as the Yorubas. Among the Igbos, the Ibibios, the Cross River, the Edos and many other ethnic groups that dominate southern Nigeria, greeting is not as dramatic. They shake hands and then salute at a measured social distance. In fact, quite unlike Yoruba culture, a child may call an elder by name in the southeast. This is a largely Christian region that embraced European education very early and is seen as the elites of Nigeria society today.Both men lamented that these days, rather than children prostrate or kneel in greeting; they offer to shake hands instead. Parents who still have cultural pride in them correct their children, but many others simply let it pass. It is not surprising to have children wave or say ‘Hi’ these days, something which culture advocates detest with a passion.

In the northern part of Nigeria, which is very Islamic, the Arabian culture of greeting thrives. Men squat or bow in greeting. But even that has largely changed over time.

Just like the Yorubas, the prostrate, kneel and squat positions have been replaced with low level bows by men.

Besides the foreign cultures, it is more of a social reality thing. Urban spaces do not permit an elaborate display of culture.

Interestingly, people still wear their traditional titles with pride; in most of Nigeria, to be referred to as a ‘Mr’ suggests ordinariness and could be offensive.

Nevertheless, the culture of elaborate greeting has not been totally eroded. During wedding ceremonies among Yorubas, prospective grooms and their friends prostrate fully before their in-laws. Girls kneel before their parents for blessings.

Then, in church, regardless of ethnic group and sex, people kneel befo
re God.

Kisses for Tunis

Tunis kisses and still greets with respect as happens in most Islamic regions where Western cultures have not knocked down all traditional structures.

Here, greetings obey set cultural codes and social order. Age, gender and the social and-or political realities have determined the way that handshake is exchanged.

But these codes have not been static especially in the cities where there is a lot of social intercourse. In the villages, traditional greeting manners are still alive, in big cities; things might have taken a new turn.

Greetings have been reduced to signs of respect: the young should greet the elders. Women on the other hand must show their submission to the man for it’s a patriarchal society.

When it comes to greetings between two persons of same stature, they kiss the back side of each other’s hand. The number of kisses is not fixed, but depends on familiarity.

You will see this between men even when they don’t know each other, but public contact between men and women is minimal.

Where kisses are involved, the two actors engage each other on their families through a series of fast flying questions. Most of the time, the players don’t respect the order of question in answering. This demonstrates a personal touch to the affair.

In big Tunisian cities, things follow a different script thanks to constant interaction between diverse cultures. Shaking hands is the most used sign of greetings. People who know each other well can also kiss each other. Number of kisses depends from the affection. Four kisses is a good sign. Two is quite normal. No kiss at all means a neutral contact or, when the two persons know each other already, a bad sign. Kissing (two or four) without shaking hands is a sign of nice feeling and affinity
A different script

In the case of contact between men and women even in a modern context, it is not common that a man and a woman kiss each other the first time they meet. But it can be that at the end of the same meeting, they exchange two neutral kisses. If the woman is veiled (Islamic tradition) kissing one who is not family is not allowed and even in some cases shaking hands.

But in Tunisia, generally shaking hands is more and more allowed than in other Muslim countries.

Whether lying prostrate or kissing, Africa seems to be embracing a new greeting.


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