What do etiquette, power and an African lunch have in common? Well not much, but a class lecture on etiquette got me thinking otherwise.
We were excited when our course co-ordinator announced that “lunch today would be on the house!”. Wow, LBS is so generous, I reflexively thought, but quickly realized that even in Freetown, nothing is free. Why the generosity? I waited to see what would come forth from the belly of this trojan horse. I wasn’t to wait too long, as the facilitator strode into class and announced that she would be taking us on a session of etiquette.
A slim, respectable-looking woman, she took over an hour guiding us through etiquettes in general, and dining etiquettes in particular. As I listened, a nagging thought pushed me to ask a question. “Ma, thank you for your presentation”, I began, “but I have a question. Who created all these rules of etiquette and why should we follow them”? Far from being defensive, she smiled and answered along the lines of ‘we dont know, but they are generally acceptable rules of proper dining that have become accepted around the world”. While I agreed with her, I couldn’t help but think of the disservice that a fork and knife would do to pounded yam and afang soup. What a travesty!
On Power and Cutlery. Neocolonialism or Fine dining?
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without necessarily accepting it.Aristotle
As I held my knife and fork like a proper gentleman, I couldn’t help but wonder at the far reaching implications of power. What would have happened if Africa colonised Europe? Would young European students be learning how to roll a proper ball of amala? Would teachers guide them on the task of cutting through hot starch without it sticking to the plate or your fingers (a supremely difficult task). Who would teach these lads how to navigate a bowl of Banga soup filled with ‘okporoko’ and other assorted accompaniments?
It seems deliciously far fetched now, but it is my opinion that the answer to my own question is power. The victors conquered the vanquished and imposed their customs on them. Despite the facade of independence on the African continent, the brutal colonial power only paved way for a softer but no less important form of power, the power of influence. Soft power. Soft power is the reason why a suit is the official dress of the workplace. We forget the fact that atmospheric temperatures in this part of the world can often exceed body temperature. Even the Europeans themselves preferred khaki shirts and shorts when they first arrived on our shores. When men finish this look up with a tie and shirt buttoned up to the neck, all one can say is, wow. Just wow.
Now we are here. So what do we do?
The key takeaway from these musings is not to rise up in holy anger against the very norms that have come to define civilized African society. Rather, it is a call to recognize their origins. To understand why we dine the way we do, dress the way we do, and behave the way we do. It is my belief that this will give us a freedom that no European could ever give, a freedom to color outside the lines of the current norms. Such that you will not be overly dogmatic when employees prefer to wear native attire to work EVERYDAY and not just on Fridays (another rule whose origins I question), or think that just because someone speaks their native dialect, they cannot be masters of the English language. We cannot change our oppressive past, but we can prevent ourselves from becoming the oppressors of today.
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