Being Polite in Nigeria: Only Shake When Shaken To

By Jody Hanson

Culture tip: Being polite in Nigeria

Suddenly the room went into a state of collective anaphylactic shock. Regaining his composure, the Chief of Shendam hitched-up his babariga and strolled out the door. His entourage meekly followed. The bank employees quietly slunk out behind them as they did not want to be anywhere near the manager when he exploded.

From behind his desk Emeka glared at me, the rims of his eyes red, his nostrils splayed.

“Do you realize what you’ve just done?” he demanded in a tone that froze the sweltering air in the West African room.

I shook my head, desperately trying to figure out the faux pax I’d just committed, “No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“The Chief of Shendam won’t even eat food that is touched by a woman,” he hissed at me, small flecks of spittle flew through the air, “and what did you do? You gave him your hand to shake when he was leaving.”

“But he was shaking hands with everyone.” I protested, “I was only being polite.”

It was 1981 and I was a young Canadian teacher posted to Kurgwi, a small bush village in central Nigeria. Secondary schools had been built with the flush of oil money and that brought education to small settlements in remote parts of the country. Our school compound didn’t have electricity or running water, and we got mail once a month.

The locals had never seen a white woman before I arrived. The first couple of times I walked into the village, small children looked at me, screamed and dived for protection behind their parents. In West Africa, you see, devils are white and one was headed towards them. The parents apologized, but I smiled at being considered a “devil woman.”

Returning to the incident at the bank, Emeka was the manager at Shendam, a larger town about 20 miles down the road and we’d started seeing each other. His family referred to me as his “European wife.” I pointed out that as I was neither European nor a wife, but to no avail.

About a month after the shaking hands incident, I was again sitting in Emeka’s office on a Friday afternoon. Suddenly the door burst open and the Chief and his entourage filed in. Friday is the holy day in the Muslim world, so men were dressed in their best. I would have gladly disappeared in a puff of ju-ju smoke. Instead, I smiled weakly.

The Chief and his entourage staked out their places and talked with Emeka in Hausa. The bank staff fluttered around; I listened. After about 20 minutes, the accountant returned with the Chief’s money, and he tucked it into an inside pocket in his robe. The transaction finished, the Chief stood up and began to shake hands. I slunk further into my chair, and hoped it to be over soon. When the Chief stopped in front of me and extended his hand the entire room erupted with mummers of approval. Emeka beamed at me, absolutely glowing. My status went up about ten notches.

So why did the Chief shake my hand? I’m not exactly sure, but I have two theories. The first is that it was because there are three sexes in West Africa: men, women and white women. So, as a white woman, I had more status than the local women, even if they were rich. The second is that I was the mulatto daughter of the Chief of Qua.

The first time Emeka and I visited his relatives I was taken to a back bedroom when it was time to eat. One of the women brought in a tray of pounded yam and eguci stew and set it on a table. Not understanding what was happening I asked if she was going to join me, as it was common to eat from a communal bowl. She said, no, that she was only there to serve me. My limbo status was too high to allow me to eat in the kitchen with the women, but not elevated enough to rate a place at the table with the men.

The second theory about why the Chief shook my hand was that he may have heard I was the mulatto daughter of the Chief of Qua. A couple of weeks after I arrived in Kurgwi, I walked into the village and everyone genuflected and addressed me as rankiditi, which roughly translated as “your highness.” Somewhat stunned, I genuflected in return.

The students informed me that the evening before the local Chief had proclaimed that Lamai — which is what the local people called me as it meant “woman born on Thursday” and that was the day I’d arrived — was, in fact, the mulatto daughter of the Chief of Qua.

Qua was a village about 15 miles further into the bush. The official story was that a white missionary woman had travelled in the area and been impregnated by the Chief of Qua, who already had 17 wives. The missionary went back to her country over there somewhere — but the child loved Africa and she had returned. And that was me, Lamai.

So there I was, socially reconstructed as an African princess and accorded the privileges that went with the title. When I said I was Canadian, the locals waved their hands dismissively and said “Oh, yes, your mother’s country” which didn’t count nearly as much as your father’s.

My dual identify afforded me the best of both worlds. When I remembered the greetings in Hausa — a rather complicated process — people nodded and smiled approvingly because I was the mulatto daughter of the Chief of Qua. When I went to the local bar, smoked cigars or roared around on my motorcycle, it was dismissed because I’d been schooled in my mother’s country. Either way I won.

The challenge of parachuting into a country in West Africa where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the local language required me to learn the cultural etiquette on fast-forward. So the experience of not to shake unless shaken to wasn’t a mistake, it was simply yet another good cross-cultural learning experience.

About the Author:
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who currently lives in Cambodia. To date she has visited 107 countries, lived in eight and holds passports in three. Her – some would say irresponsible – retirement plan is to keep going until she drops. At that time she wants a Muslim burial: wash the body, wrap it in a white sheet and plant it by sundown. In the meantime, Hanson continues to have more than her share of adventures and misadventures, both of which she embraces equally.

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2 thoughts on “Being Polite in Nigeria: Only Shake When Shaken To

  1. Leigh

    I enjoyed this story – and what an easy thing to do. I totally agree though that white women are given more status than African women as I experienced the same thing on numerous occasions in Africa – most notably in Botswana where I was whisked to the front of the customs line ahead of all the locals.

  2. Pingback: Fine Family Dining in Cambodia » Traveling with Sweeney

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