Greetings in Africa

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A handshake. Courtesy of Cytonn Photography

Greetings represent a cultural convention and in Africa its verbal articulation is as important as the gestures that accompany it. Those gestures include a bow, a military kind of salute, lying flat on the ground, a wave, a handshake, or an oral statement. These greeting postures are mostly determined by social variables such as gender, age, class/status and so on.  Among the Akan of Ghana, for instance, a young lady is expected to bow while greeting the elderly; the young man is expected to salute the elderly in a greeting; adults in similar age bracket will shake hands, while the middle finger snaps the middle finger of the one you whose hand you are “shaking”. People are always greeted from right to left, always with the right hand. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the act of lying flat to greet adults and traditional leaders is common. Similarly, among the Frafra of northern Ghana, a greeting can take the form of reverence, when someone greets a royal with these terms ‘zugu be tondo’, which literally translates ‘my head is on the ground’, meaning “you have my utmost respect and devotion, Chief”.

These gestures and postures are manifestations of courtesy among Africans. These ways of greeting are very different from the habits in western cultures. The general importance of greetings in Western culture is captured this way by Wojtowicz (2021): “the role of greetings is neglected. People no longer greet each other properly because they are frequently in a hurry. When meeting a friend, unexpectedly, one often only waves his or her hand or nods and goes about his or her business. In the western culture people somehow tend to forget that a greeting is an expression of joy, attention and consideration in a proportionate way toward family members and friends. When meeting a stranger, westerners are aware that making the first good impression is particularly important, so they put effort into their appearance eventually forgetting that it is a greeting that is crucial in creating the first good impression and setting a positive tone for the consecutive conversation”.

If we add waving to the discussion, we realize that another chasm exists between most African habits and the western ones, since waiving with one’s left hand is not a problem in most western cultures, meanwhile Africans in general take offence at that. Greetings have also been considered as speech acts that are uttered in certain situations for particular purposes. To scholars like and Wei (2010), greetings are primarily acts of politeness. In certain cases, greetings are not occasions for real conversation and in certain African cultures, the response to a greeting is a brief, polite and positive reply which is also a greeting to the first interlocutor. Everyone deserves to be greeted, people greet each other whenever they meet, and the same individuals may exchange greetings several times a day. People greet each other regardless of whether they know each other or not.

Among the Dioula or Jula (it belongs to the Mande language family) of West Africa for instance, a morning greeting could be the following: a/i ni sogoma’ (good morning), M’baa / n’see, i sira here ra? (Good morning [said differently by a male and a female] did you sleep well?” In this context greeting translates into showing interest in the ‘peace’ of the first one to greet, since the answer is to find out if that one had a good night. This greeting could end with blessing(s) for the rest of the day: ‘ka tle here di’ [May the rest of the day be good]. It is rare to hear a situation where someone who is greeted provides a negative response. The answer to a greeting is always positive, in Jula and in many other African cultures.  That leads to comments like the following: “an African will always say s/he is well, although they are unwell”. This is not an oddity since the real news can be given or shared after the greeting. Hence the following conclusion by Wojtowicz: “One is not expected to give a negative answer or to elaborate on the real condition. In other words, a greeting should not be regarded as an instance of free conversation, all it shows is an attitude of the speaker, as it is used to express one’s feelings toward the hearer.”

Another feature that illustrates the importance of greetings in Jula is the synonymity between ‘greeting’ and ‘visiting’. The same word, ‘fo’ can be used for either of them, so greeting is as important as paying someone a visit. It is necessary to point out that certain differences exist among African languages in the realm of greetings. In certain African cultures, a greeting can be an opportunity to mention or explain one’s problems. Speakers of Yoruba, Ewe and Hausa contend that it is acceptable to talk about one’s troubles as an answer to a general greeting. Among the Hausa, especially, if one of the participants (in the greeting process) feels like complaining, the hearer will not be surprised, and will listen and sympathize with those who have problems. In those three cultures and languages, greetings can be the opportunity to communicate ideas, unlike Jula where greetings are a form of social interaction.

In the case of South Africa, it is important to greet everyone respectfully and immediately upon seeing them. This is especially important in rural areas, where it is respectful to greet everyone you pass by. The most common greeting is a handshake accompanied with eye contact and a smile. Some overlook the importance of greeting now, most of the time they explain their attitudes with the importance of ‘modernity’ or the mimicry of western ways. That might account for the fracas that occurred between South African rapper Nasty C and Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie. The media reveals that the refusal to shake hands caused that serious acrimony: “South African rapper Nasty C has revealed that he refused to feature on a song with Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie for personal reasons. Nasty C said he turned down two feature offers from Sarkodie because he resented the way the Ghanaian rapper treated him when they first met. Nasty C revealed that the ‘Non-Living Things’ artist refused to shake his hand and he vowed never to give him a verse”. This shows how a greeting affects all aspects of life, from an ordinary encounter on a road or street to the show biz set, relationships or collaborations.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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7 Comments

  1. Greetings are very important part of our Ghanaian culture especially in Northern Ghana. I happen to come from Upper East, a region within Northern Ghana that cherishes greeting like their lives depend on it.

    I remember when I first landed on UCC campus as an undergraduate fresher, I was liked by many because of the fact I greet everyone I come across. This even helped secure votes for me when I took part in the Miss Fatia Fata Nkrumah Beauty Pageant( a search for the wife of Nkrumah)

    I emerged victoriously as the ultimate winner eventually.
    I would often hear some of them say, “this girl is very respectful ” and so vote for her and that helped me a lot.
    You can just imagine how being respectful is associated with greeting.
    I won the hearts of many because of “greeting.”
    How powerful 👏

  2. While some people do not care about whether they are greeted or not, others hold greetings in high esteem.The truth is that, those who seem not to care not to care are somehow bitter within especially when they are ignored by people they know as far as greeting is concerned.

  3. Greetings in the northern part of Ghana, where I hale from is indispensable whatsoever. It marks your up bringing ie weather you coming from a good home and weather your parents brought you up well.
    In fact, just greeting alone, when it’s done properly can open ones doors and vice versa.

  4. We done prof!
    Greeting is a cultural behavior which varies across the world.Greeting express the degree of politeness of the person who greet.It is a sign of respect in some county and culture especially in African countries.In Benin, greeting is symbolic gesture and sign of respect in Benin. In my tribe,when you greet politely an old person, this person is happy and responds to you by reminding you your origin, the past existence of your ancestral, they courage through which we the Clanic panegyric.

  5. Africans consider greetings as an important element in their lives. Snubbing someone’s handshake means you’re arrogant, not cultured or you have a grudge with the person or you have probably looked down upon the person. Nasty C may be right for refusing that offer. In Africa, eye brows are always on people who do not greet. People with such character usually pay heavy price when they are in need of help of those whom he snubbed.

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