Igbo greetings - More than just a handshake
In Switzerland, greeting people is rather straightforward. We shake hands with strangers and give three kisses on the cheek to people we are close to. In the Igbo culture, greetings are much more complex. Not only does gender have an influence on how you greet someone, but also age difference and degree of relation.
It took me a while to figure out which situation required which greeting, and there might be some that I do not yet know about, but here is what I have learned so far:
Igbo greetings for women
It is quite unusual and brisk for a woman to reach out her hand for a handshake in Igbo culture. However, if someone stretches out their hand toward her, she can respond to the greeting by placing her left hand on her right forearm before shaking the person's hand. By slightly bending forward, she can express an additional level of humility and respect towards the person.
The back tap is probably the most common greeting a woman can encounter in Igbo culture. To perform this greeting, the woman slightly turns her back toward the person she wants to greet and bends forward in order for the other person to tap their hand on her upper back. Important is friendly eye contact before and after the process to support the gesture.
Even though it felt strange at first to turn my back on someone I wanted to greet, I quickly came to appreciate this gesture as a very uniting way to greet, that expresses mutual respect and appreciation.
Hugs are quite common amongst Igbo people, but as a Non-Igbo person, I recommend either doing a sideways hug (hugging only with one hand while standing a bit on the side of the person) or offering your back for a back-tap instead, just to make sure you are not overstepping any boundaries.
This is something I am still figuring out. When attending an event with Ezenwa, he usually goes around and greets most guests with a handshake or a backhand clap (see below). I, however, am expected to follow him behind and smile and wave at the guests rather than shake everyone's hand.
I still feel I am being rude to people by only greeting them with a wave, but I guess it is just the cultural difference I have to get used to. At least, if some of the guests stand up to shake my hand or give me a back tap, I am allowed to return the gesture :-)
Igbo Greetings for men
Among peers, men use the standard handshake quite often. However, when a younger man is offered a handshake by an older man, he will use the left hand to support the greeting, just like women (see two-hands-shake above).
The back tap is not common among men. But if a younger man wants to greet the Igwe, he will offer his back for a tap.
The most prestigious greeting amongst men is the backhand clap. It is performed by titled men only. To greet, they will clap their backhands against each other three times before shaking their hands. Instead of their hands, they may use their walking sticks (Nkpo), ivory (Odu enyi), or hand fans (Akupe) to perform the greeting. It is seen as a big provocation if women or non-titled men greet each other this way.
If a not-yet-titled man raises his backhand towards a titled man to request a 3-backhand-clap, he will receive a 2-backhand-clap only, with the explanation that he is not yet up to the task. And even though the person obviously knows beforehand that he is not entitled to receive a 3-backhand-clap, this form of teasing is very common amongst Igbo men, especially during events.
The kneel-down greeting is less common. However, whenever it happens, it is great fun to watch. Grown men with freshly ironed clothes will kneel down on the sandy floor when encountering a member of their maternal home. What may seem like a silly gesture is actually a way of showing utmost respect towards one's mother's family members.
The man kneeling down will address his family member as "Nne m ochie" (if it is a woman) or "Nna m ochie" (if it is a man) and will refuse to get up until he is raised up with something (usually money).
However, some stingy "Nne ochie na Nna ochie" will give a promise instead of cash. They will say, for example: "Nwa m nowke binie, mango chaa i bia horo," which can be translated to "get up my son, if the mangos are ripe, you can come and harvest." Obviously, this is just a way to put you off, as they might not even have a Mango tree in their compound.
All in all, I have to say I am glad I am a woman because the types of greetings amongst Igbo men are much more complex to learn. Yet still, Igbo people are very patient in teaching foreigners their traditions and will patiently guide you through in case you forget which greeting to apply :-)
Last but not least
I decided always to end my blog posts with an Igbo proverb or quote and a song (not necessarily Igbo) that speaks to my heart. Feel free to share your favorite proverbs or a song you are currently listening to!
Igbo quote of the week: "O na-abu ekwee ekele, ihu asaa" - When greetings are exchanged, faces can brighten.
My song this week: Osadebe - Morning Star
This blog is neither scientific research nor a social study; rather, it is written with much appreciation for the Igbo culture, from the subjective perspective of the author, based on personal experience. Generalizations are to be read with care, as no truth is true for everyone. And most importantly, this blog is to be read with a smile and a pinch of salt (or pepper in this context).