#EbolaGate: The Handshake as a Threatened Symbol

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ebola greeting

It seems that all of a sudden, the handshake is about to disappear. Thanks, but no thanks, to Ebola Virus Disease that is currently ravaging many parts of West Africa.

In order to avoid any form of contact and avoid contracting the deadly virus, many Nigerians are now shying away from shaking hands. Even some who still summon the courage to shake hands with others soon after resort to washing or sanitizing their hands.  

In fact, not long after an Ebola-related death was recorded in Nigeria, some new forms of greetings known as “Ebola Greeting” emerged among the ever-creative Nigerian social media users. While some of those greetings are quite hilarious, the message is simple: be safe.

But before #EbolaGate, the handshake was “the perfect non-verbal communicative contrivance” (See link here). According to Joshua Rapp Learn, “The handshake is one of the highest forms of symbolic currency with the power to unite, divide, seal deals, and broker peace.” In his article published here, Joshua Learn further describes it as “a ‘universal norm of reciprocity’” whose “rejection sends a powerful message.”

 

The handshake is, according to some sources, said to have originated in medieval times with the etiquette of knights. However, other sources say it appeared later in the courts of British nobles in colonial times. (The reader can click here and here for further readings on this).  Again some say that the handshake originated in war. There rationale is that in order to demonstrate that the intention is peaceful and that the hand does not bear any weapons, the handshake was adopted as the gesture. Today, athletes (including boxers and wrestlers) often shake hands before and after the match to show that they bear no ill will towards each other. Political gladiators also do this, usually after elections, to demonstrate that they have forgotten the bitterness displayed during the election campaign. (I’m really not sure whether this applies to Nigerian politicians. Someone please confirm for me whether Ogbeni Aregbesola and Senator Omisore have shaken hands).

Another school believes that this custom did not originate in wars but in marriages and was then carried over to war situations. 

Well, irrespective of how or where it originated from, the handshake over time became a symbol of friendship, commitment, agreement and peace. In spite of this, the handshake had at some time in the past been criticized as a possible mode of disease transfer. For instance, during the London 2012 Olympics, the Head Doctor at the British Olympic Association, Dr Ian McCurdie, reportedly warned athletes against shaking hands with their rivals. His reasons? In plain language, athletes could pick up sicknesses which could affect their performance.

Today, even though there has been no official warnings against handshakes in Nigeria (the refrain has been to wash the hands or use a hand sanitizer), many are already finding the handshake a clumsy proposition. It is a custom, symbol or gesture many young Nigerians would rather do without.

How the dramas over handshakes play out in the days ahead depend on how soon the Ebola epidemic is contained.

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And The “Jeep” Disappointed Him

I love my country men and women. That’s because in their thoughts and actions, they never cease to amaze me.

It just seems that we are wired to think in a way that does not really solve our basic societal problems but to give us the “cool” feeling that we have been able to ensure that at least it no longer affects us.

Why, for instance, do we think that the solution to bad roads is to drive “jeeps”? And just in case you are unfamiliar with Nigerian lingo, a “jeep” is the Nigerian word for four-wheel-drive vehicle (an SUV). In the warped reasoning of the Nigerian elite, if roads are bad (even if it’s his neighbourhood road), he has no business calling for collaborative efforts from his neighbours to fix it, reporting the matter to the relevant government agency to take action or insisting that the government lives up to its responsibility. No!

He sees only in one shade, the I-pass-my-neighbour shade. For as long as we can show off to our neighbours, we are good. That’s part of the reason why many will not join in a communal effort to fix a neighbourhood road or be part of the call for government to do what is right. Such Nigerians think, “afterall, I have a ‘jeep’ that can adapt to difficult terrains.” This partly explains the large number of four-wheel-drive vehicles or SUV’s on Nigerian roads. It seems a lot easier to buy a “jeep” than worry about the roads.

But such thinking is delusional because bad roads also affect “jeeps” as we shall see from the following story.

In the neighbourhood where I live, the roads have just been passable. When a portion of the road broke down about a year ago, it was the management of the school in the estate that took it upon itself to fix it. Other neighbours, including some ‘Big Men’ (former-this and ex-that, movers and shakers in both religious and political circles), felt it didn’t concern them.

We woke up one Saturday morning in May 2014 to see workmen milling around the estate. What was going on? It turned out that the contracts for up-grading the roads to and in the estate had been awarded and the contractor had just mobilized to site. That was the beginning of our ordeal.

There’s no need to go into details as to how we were assured that the project would take only two weeks. This is August and they haven’t even finished digging the drains.

To cut a long story short, as they dug the drains, they heaped the sand right in the middle of the roads. Those of us with smaller cars could no longer drive into the estate: we had to look for where to park outside. For the “Big Men” in the estate, however, they continued to climb the heap of sand and drive right into their homes with their “jeeps”. No collective attempt was made to tell the contractor to at least factor the convenience of residents into the construction project.

Then it happened!

One “Big Man” who owns a chain of exotic “jeeps” was driving home one night and veered off the slippery and sinking sand and right into the dug-out drain. The head of the vehicle lay prostrate leaving the back right up in the air on the road. Trust Nigerians, the next “Big Man” driving out in his “jeep” the next morning expertly maneuvered his vehicle to the free side of the road and drove on. Like we say in Nigeria, “no shaking”.

But there was “shaking”. The workers resumed in the morning and as if by a grand conspiracy, dug out the other side of the road. Effectively, every vehicle was hemmed in (or out, as the case may be).

It’s been one week now since that incident. The “jeep” is still praying in the ditch. The workmen still come and pretend to be digging. The road is still messy. It still rains heavily. Residents still struggle for space to park their vehicles outside of the estate and then walk the heap of sand into their homes. The “contractor” is still faceless. The problem is still unresolved.

But we carry on, nonetheless.