During the last month, I’ve had the honor of accompanying Saha Global staff on two Chief visits. The rural communities around Tamale are not only patriarchal, but also geriarchal. This means that each of the villages is lead by a chief- typically an aged male- and a small community of “elders” (also old men). Major decisions for the community, judicial proceedings, rewards, etc. are all handled by the chief and his cohort of elders. The chief’s “office space” in Dagomba tribes is made of circular mud walls, a thatched roof, and for wealthy chiefs, cement floors. The chief sits on an elevated stage that is built into the structure and the elders sit beside or below him on the floor. You could say its their version of the Oval Office and the space commands an appropriate amount of respect and reverence from the chief’s people.
In general, the majority of conversations between Saha and the community are with women. Since the responsibility of fetching water falls on the women, it was a natural fit for women to also run the water centers. It’s rare that we spend much time with the men, however, when the center is having trouble and we need some political strength to make things work again, we reach out to the chief and request a meeting.
Meeting Dagomba Chiefs is a fascinating reminder of the importance of status as a psychological/evolutionary need. Whether we recognize it or not, we are constantly evaluating our interactions through this lens. “Am I being treated with appropriate respect?” If the answer is “No”, then reactions can be pretty strong… “Who do you think you are?!” or “Don’t you know who I am?!” According to neurologists, the evaluation of and reaction to our status is in the oldest part of our brains, and while the manner in which we show respect to one another differs from culture to culture, the importance of status and consequently the strong reactions we have if someone denies us proper respect, is pretty similar across the globe.
Amin (the Saha Monitor) and I both understood the challenge ahead of us as we rode the motorcycle to the last chief’s meeting we attended. We were both introspective and quiet because in addition to presenting our case well, we needed to do so in a way that respected the chief’s position in the community. The interaction is best described as a dance, and on the palace “dance floor” we integrate our movements with those of the community elders and the chief. If we are able to find a harmony, then the chief might show his appreciation by helping us get the center back on track. But if we stepped on too many toes, we’d go home with sore feet and empty hands.
We were escorted into the chief’s palace and dropped to our knees in a bow. We went through the typical and lengthy Dagboni greeting with the chief and then subsequently with each of the other men in the order of importance. As we finished the greeting, chairs were set for Amin and me to sit in. So far so good. Our greeting satisfied their need for recognition and so they returned the gesture by offering Amin and me a chair, demonstrating to us that they valued our presence. We presented the kola nuts we had brought to the chief who instructed one of the elders to pass them around the room. As their guest, I had Amin help me break off a piece of the bitter nut and I did my duty chewing the kola nut, which is probably the worst thing ever! Fortunately, the chief nodded in approval so I must have been somewhat successfully keeping my true feelings to myself. He asked if I liked it and I told him it wasn’t my favorite, but that it was fine. He just laughed and laughed and the ice was broken.
The importance of status has been a difficult thing for me to accept because, among other things, it doesn’t fit into my understanding of equality. Philosophically-speaking, there is no difference between the Chief of the village or the Fulani children that live on the outskirts of town. Yet, I know that when I meet with the children, I treat them differently than when I meet with the chief, so the whole experience has me pondering…How do I acknowledge the importance of status while still believing that all humans should be treated with equal respect and dignity?