#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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