Sunday, 4 March 2012

Traditions: must I have things my way?

For years now I’ve been extremely vocal about the unifying power of inter-tribal marriages. My argument has been that if (for instance) a Hausa man living in northern Nigeria has Igbo in-laws, when violence breaks out (for whatever reason) in the north the Hausa man will be reluctant to harm any Igbo person he comes across. This is because he has interacted with Igbo people and (hopefully) realized that they are good people. In Nigeria, marriages are not solely about the man and woman tying the knot; they are about whole families, tribes and clans coming together. As a Nigerian proverb says “you don’t just marry a man, you marry into a family” or in this case a tribe. If you marry into a tribe everybody in that tribe becomes your in-law by default. This might sound overwhelming in theory but in practice it enables a sense of togetherness to be forged between disparate families, clans or tribes.

While I still stand by the benefits of inter-tribal marriages, recently, something happened that opened my eyes to the fact that I had been rather simplistic in my thinking. I have this friend who is slightly older than I am. We met during NYSC in the north. A few days ago I had cause to go with him to visit his uncle. We got into his uncle’s office and I curtseyed (you know, that thing Nigerian girls do with their knees when they are greeting an older person) my friend bowed and we sat and had quite a good chat with his uncle. I noticed however, that he was rather distracted. After we left I asked him what was wrong. “Nothing!” he said testily. Perplexed by his behavior I kept at him till he said he was unhappy that I didn’t kneel down to greet his uncle. I’m sure you have guessed by now that my friend is Yoruba. In the part of Nigeria from which I hail; it is not required for me to kneel down when greeting an elder. It honestly did not occur to me. When I realized that I had committed a faux pas by Yoruba tradition, I apologized, quite abjectly, to my friend but he would have none of it. Even though he’s talking to me again there is still a strain in our conversations that lets me know he hasn’t totally put the incidence behind him. Despite how bad he feels about it, I can’t guarantee that there are no situations where I would forget to kneel and greet an elder Yoruba person. I’ll have to build it up as an instinctive habit that’ll likely only become second nature after a period of constant practice.

This is an example of what causes problems in most inter-tribal relationships whether between business partners, platonic friends, neighbors, dating or married couples etc. Both lack of information/ knowledge about the other person’s tribal norms and lack of communication to the other person about what is expected from them to sustain the relationship can cause seemingly insurmountable problems. Going back to the example used above; it would have made things smoother if I had asked my friend (or he had volunteered the information) about what is expected from me as a younger female going to visit his uncle. He would possibly have said, “Oh! You have to kneel down when you greet him” or “it is traditional to bring a small gift”. Then I would have had no excuse to not observe the dictates of this tradition. Even assuming that I didn’t think to ask and he assumed I knew what tradition required.  When he realized I didn’t, his first reaction should have been to teach and correct in compassion not to accuse or sulk. When two entities, whether they are countries, states or individuals have any sort of interaction, for there to be peace (and hopefully productivity) there has to be a healthy dose of compassion and communication. We often forget that not everyone had the same upbringing we did. Influences such as parents, environment, religion, and the traditions one is taught, go a long way towards what one considers to be the right way to do things. The thing is, the lines between right and wrong get a little blurry when it comes to issues of tradition and/ or culture. For instance, traditionally people from Cross River state in Nigeria like their soup vegetables cut quite thinly. Further up north indigenes of Kaduna usually cut most of their vegetables in large chunks. Now, it will be petty and short sighted for the Cross Riverian mother of a young man to say his fiancé will not make a good wife because she can’t cook. Especially if her belief that the girl can’t cook stems from the simple fact that they cut vegetables in different ways.  This might seem like a trivial example but it just goes to show what impact seemingly little traditions can have on how we view people and ourselves.

In any relationship where both parties stand to benefit, each must be willing to compromise at one time or the other. The rigidity that refuses to consider a compromise and must have things its way is often the death toll that marks a descent into conflict. The next time you interact with someone from a different tribe, try a little compassion and communication. You will be surprised how amiable people are when we try to see their point of view.

By Dooshima Tsee


  1. Compromising in a relationship is a sure key to long lasting relation, but both parties must be willing to compromise. We live in a world of "I", in a relationship it should be "we". Great article! Thanks

  2. It is important to keep cultural and traditional believes intact whenever necessary, especially in a relationship where one partner is sensitive in this area and believes in it strongly. In addition, it is also important to respect the other partner, who does not share the same believe system and views, and reason with them heartily on such issues. It is a Nigerian, especially Yoruba thing, for a younger to prostrate before elders in greeting, but again if one isn't used to or believe in such, moderation and technicality should be employed in place of anger.

  3. Lets promote cultural, traditional and diversifying marriages. This is one sure way we can eliminate cultural and traditional prejudice and move a nation forward. Informative article. Thanks

  4. Traditions can be a hindrance to many things, even in government, but then again tradition brings sect of people together. In terms of relationship, tradition can both be enjoyable if both parties respect and admire each other origin, tradition that is. It all depends on the parties involved, in my judgement.