Sometime ago, while still in university, I had been a member of an organization that seeks to promote the advancement of the youth- especially in the area of social and political reforms. It was an international organization and quiet often there were students who visited my country on exchange programmes. On her visit, a European Lady who was also the president (I think) of her university branch of the organization had expressed frustration upon hearing about modes of greeting and the use of the left hand in Africa – I mean Sub Saharan Africa. The frustration was not only recorded in her voice but also on her face. From my observation she might have actually come into contact with the situation and could not make her brain understand why such rules and indeed while delivering a speech during one of our weekly gatherings, she asked us,
‘If I can use my right hand for anything, why can’t I use the left as well?’
I very much sympathize with her and have therefore taken the time to try to clarify this issue of greetings. The reader should bear in mind that I’m not qualified by certification and I apologize for any historical or chronological blunders with respect to other cultures or the backdrop references I made in this article. I am also aware that there are better informed Africans who could do justice to this topic but I guess they are busy cashing cheques. One thing is clear though – it’s my culture – and it lives on in me.
People from all walks of life greet to acknowledge each other’s presence and to show courtesy. The mode of greeting depends on the particular culture of the people who have met. The Chinese usually greet by bowing slightly forward, lowering their head to show respect but for the Americans, hi is usually enough. Our custom is simple: (seniority in age or financial status naturally does not matter) it is a question of who first saw or who met whom. If I come to your house, I greet and you respond. After responding to a greeting, the host then proceeds to say ‘welcome’ and the visitor will intend answer. This is usually followed by the object of the visit. In tribes such as the Ewe of north – eastern Ghana, greeting goes beyond simple ‘Good morning’. It is expected that you inquire about spouses and children and sometimes other relatives.
Men usually greet by shaking or raising the right hand towards the other person( if in a distance) but a woman is expected to greet by placing both hands near her abdomen and lowering herself like in the ‘Chinese way’ to show respect but not bowing. However when greeting or shaking hands in a group, the visitor simply ignores the statuses of the people and also those he knew personally and starts from left to right. This is a non-discriminatory way of showing courtesy and ensures that one’s palm is directly facing the subsequent person in the group. Naturally, there is a strong bond among people of the same family, clan or tribe so these rules may not always apply. After greeting his hosts, a visitor will be given a chair to sit on and the group will intern come round to greet and then the flaw is open by eldest person for the object of the visit to be announced. Greeting, giving, pointing, waving, shaking or receiving with the left hand is considered to be rude and disrespectful – unless the other hand is occupied, even that, it must be followed with apologetic word or gestures. Of course nobody will arrest you for using the left hand but if you want the particular tribe or these days the nation as a whole to identify with you, to respect you or to come to your aid, you had better play by the rules. As a foreigner, you will be pardoned several times until it becomes obvious that you are disregarding the custom. In Europe, America or the Far East I’m sure people don’t greet with their left hand even if they were left-handed. I stand to be corrected though.
Ghanaians or Africans for that matter appreciate visits very much and handshaking or greetings are more frequent on visits than on any other occasion. I remember when I was little boy and it was announced that President Bill Clinton was visiting Ghana, the school children nearby were all made to line up from the Airport to the Castle on the d-day. We waved our little flags when he finally arrived and he himself admitted that he had never seen such warm affection. Ghanaians have no objections to unannounced visits. In fact the test of a true and sincere friendship is seen in unannounced visits especially at odd times. People sometimes ask their partners to sleep in the hall in order to make way for a friend who had turn up unexpectedly in mid-night.
So far I have been serving the reader with snacks and juices, I will now turn my attention to the main meal – the object of the discussion – the question of why not the left hand?
We associate filth, disrespect, shame, disgrace, vice and all the negative things you could think of to the left hand. Moreover, the emphasis placed on the use of the right hand is not peculiar to African Culture. People all over the world intuitively use the right hand perhaps because it has a slightly anatomical advantage or for some other reason. If you are having a conversation with someone and you sense that he has been entirely honest or realistic, you say to him, ‘you are right’. However if you feel that he has been entirely dishonest or that he is trying to manipulate you, ‘you say he has a sinister motive.’ The word sinister is of Latin origin and it means ‘left’. A good Christian who obeys all the commandments and lives a Christ-like lifestyle is said to righteous. In ancient Catholic books of liturgy, the priest is advised to ascent the altar by taking the first step with his right leg and Christ himself said that after his crucifixion he will rise and ascend into heaven and sit on the right hand side of God, the Father. I hope by now the reader gets the bigger picture and sees where we Africans branched off.
Needless to say, if you ever travel to Africa, there is no need to be nervous about prescribed modes of greetings. Nobody will lynch you. These days Africa is changing rapidly, and is also increasingly being ‘Americanized’ so city dwellers or ‘the western educated’ usually don’t spent much time on elaborate greetings except during special occasions. When you meet people, a ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ (with a smile) is usually enough and don’t hesitate to ask the right people if you are not sure about something. I heard so many years ago, of the most incredible story of an anthropologist who came to Africa and saw a few unscrupulous Africans eating mangoes on a tree. Astonished, he quickly took out his diary and wrote that Africans live in family groups on mango trees.