Greet the chief: you can’t start asking questions without seeing him

If you think you can enter a small community in an African country and just start asking questions for an interview, you’ll have to think again. It’s possible for a journalist to do that in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York – enter a neighborhood, go straight to the people who’ve already agreed to be interviewed and proceed with the reporting assignment.

It’s not always the case in many places in Africa.

In many African cultures, people uphold protocols that foster hospitality, safeguard the community and inform the people at the top when there’s a newcomer in town moving about.

There’s typically a chief, an authority figure, community rep, a traditional ruler, some sort of headman (yes, it’s usually a man) that you need to approach. Don’t worry, it’s not anything to be afraid of. I usually find that these guys are curious and just wanna chat with you. If there is a woman present (perhaps the chief’s wife) I make a point to show courtesy to her as well as my way of recognizing women.

In 2016, I met the king of a community where I had gone to cover a recent mass killing. I was in his throne room for about 45 minutes and in that time, he gave me useful insights about how the killers barged into the neighborhood in what was a very tragic incident. He also told me before accepting the throne, he had a career as a news reporter in America (if my memory is right, I think he said in Chicago) for some years. So, he was delighted to see me in his community doing what he had done in the States. We shared professional stories, established a rapport and he blessed my endeavors.

In February 2020, I was in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to report on a measles outbreak and how health officials were trying to bring it under control. I was staying at a hotel popular with foreign journalists along the banks of the White Nile river and one day, while heading to my hotel, I noticed a cemetery along the road. I looked closer and realized that there were lots of people casually walking around in the cemetery. I asked my fixer about it and do you know what she told me? Those people live in there. I could not believe it. Thousands of people reside in a graveyard in Juba. I thought it would be a good place to do some reporting. The next day I went in to see who to talk to for my story. Did the people living in the graveyard have access to the measles vaccine for their children? As soon as I entered the cemetery community with my fixer, we explained our mission to a group of 20-something-year-old guys and they escorted us into a church (there’s a church in the cemetery for the residents to practice their Christianity). In the church we waited and waited and finally, an elderly fellow came out. He introduced himself as the chief. I knew that I couldn’t just launch into my assignment. Custom demanded that I engage him in greetings and small talk. (It’s considered very rude to go straight to the point.)

“How are you, sir? How is your day going, sir? How is the weather? How is your family, well, I hope? Ah, thank you, sir. Thank you. I see this is a church, sir.”

If you’re not familiar with this custom you may think I was sucking up to the chief. But let me clear up that misunderstanding.

Historically, African cultures have valued collectivism over individualism. Collectivism exists alongside a belief that social harmony and community cohesion requires people to regard one another. One way to show regard is that you ask about their wellbeing. This can sometimes manifest as a ceremonial protocol. For example, in my Igbo culture of southeastern Nigeria, a host or ruler may welcome a visitor by breaking a kola nut. It’s a symbolic transaction that recognizes the humanity of the people involved in a gathering – the people in the present tangible space as well as people from the past and even those in otherworldly dimensions (I’m talking about ancestors and kindred spirits).

There was one time when I was working with my TV news colleagues and we were in a small community to film. Our fixer led us straight to the folks we intended to interview, but then, the chief got word that we were around and sent someone to tell us that we were supposed to see him before starting anything. We were kind of pressed for time and we didn’t want to “go off track” and get into a long winded greeting with the chief. Not a good idea.

The chief could kick you out if you don’t stop by to greet him – especially if you ignore the messenger that he sends your way – and let him know what you’re doing in his “domain” so to say.

In the customs of people who live in the Sahel, Sahara Desert and North Africa, greetings can be really long and may involve sharing rounds of tea. For example, Hausa people typically begin conversation by asking about the weather, your health, your family, your work, your journey, the place you came from, the road you took to get there, your children, the market… I mean, it can go on.

For chiefs, these greetings should be presented with utmost formality. I admit, in the beginning when I started my reporting in Africa, I was a bit shy about asking and answering so many introductory questions. Sure, growing up in a Nigerian household in America, I was exposed to and practiced customary greetings. I gave hugs and all that (you dare not go to an Igbo party without hugging the numerous aunties and of course all the women who are around your mother’s age is an aunty), but when I moved to Africa, I saw different types of greetings taken to a level I had never seen: from forehead-to-forehead nuzzling to kisses on the cheeks (French influence in some places) to prostrating on the ground or brushing shoulders.

I’ve learned to go with it, to really open up and give a hearty response to the series of questions and when you do that, the people will appreciate your respect for their custom; they will feel that they can open up a bit to you, and that’s what every journalist in the field needs: openness. Also, when I go through the greetings, I’m not performing. I am mindful and genuine about it because I am actually deeply interested in people.

You may live in a place where these kinds of greetings aren’t normal, where people don’t take the time to do stuff like that. Maybe where you live, individualism takes precedence over collectivism. Even in the faster-paced cities across Africa, professionals may not go through all the greetings and that’s one of the results of assimilating into urbanized areas.

But can I just ask that you give it a try? It’s important especially when you go into the neighborhoods away from Africa’s big cities where a newcomer like yourself may stand out. These thorough, unhurried customary greetings are a beautiful way to just slow down and appreciate someone’s humanity, and that’s an age-old element that I see in many of the established customs in Africa: valuing a person because they are a person. It’s a simple philosophy backed by profound understandings of humans as social beings. It’s a refreshing exercise in humility that takes us back to the barest versions of ourselves, stripped of the pretentiousness of being too busy to really look at people. And if we can’t just take ten minutes to ask how a person is and set the ground before we present our agendas, then what are we really doing here?

I see these customary greetings as expressions of gratitude to be in the land of the living, gratitude to be able to share a space on earth with other living things.

When you go to greet the chief, you’re saying: I see you, I respect you as a person and I came here to talk to people.

Don’t be surprised if the chief then gives you a gift. It could be something like a picture of himself, a sculpture or other work of art, a relic or a book. I’ve gotten some nice gifts, including a fabulous bundle of woven fabric from a Tiv chief. Don’t see it as a bribe, because that’s usually not what it is. It’s just his way of saying: you are welcome here.

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