Handshaking: A Dying Practice Among the Nso People

(Revised and reproduced from Cameroon Tribune of Friday, January 15, 1988).

When this innocent, comical piece first appeared in the English edition of Cameroon Tribune of Friday, January 15, 1988, it did not win me many friends in the Nso community in this country. I was accused, among other abominations, of being an ungrateful son of Nso, who had lived outside his community for too long and was now totally alienated from the daily realities of life among his people. What a strange accusation!

Taking another look at that piece nearly ten years later, I still wonder what the fuss was all about. It was just for fun. I know these thirty-something years of Biya’s unkept promises have put tremendous strain on many shoulders and have punched smiles away from many faces. But, it’s okay to put a smile back on your faces from time to time, folks. Some of you haven’t smiled in God alone knows how long. C’mon, people, you have a right to a smile, at least! Don’t let him take even that away from you! Here is what I wrote that earned me so much reprobation.


Not too long ago, someone was heard in the pages of Cameroon Tribune loudly decrying the widespread habit of shaking hands in this country. He complained, and rightly so, that when you meet someone you know, for instance, urinating by the roadside – and do Cameroonians ever love to urinate just about anywhere and at anytime! – he immediately thrusts out a hand still glistening with urine or scrotal sweat for you to shake. Boy, what a disgusting habit!

The author of that piece has my sympathy. Ever since I read him, I have been expecting students of social behaviour to diagnose and tell Cameroonians whether such hygienically-questionable phenomena are likely to lead us down the path to heaven or to hell. But, as usual, if you were ever to wait for the learned ladies and gentlemen of the learned circles in this country to make a pronouncement on anything of worth, you would wait for ever and ever. Amen.

So, instead of waiting for what I knew would never come, I decided to put the entire Cameroonian society under the powerful lens of my social microscope, just to see for myself what would happen to the social fabrics of our dear fatherland were this handshaking madness to go unchecked. And I made a fascinating discovery.

Had the author of the article in question taken the time to look more closely, he might have seen that all is not bleak on the map of social behaviour in this country. In fact, there is one community in which that handshaking mania may soon become a thing of the past. I know this may come as a shocking revelation even to the Nso people themselves, but when you zoom in on the Nso society, you discover that fewer and fewer people are shaking hands with each other these days.

I can hear you wondering why. Well, the answer is simple. Traditional titles, formerly the exclusive preserve of a select few, are now floating around the whole place and everyone seems to want to grab one. It would seem every Nso man now wants to become a “Shey”, a “Fai”, a “Shufai”, a “Kibai” or even a “Fon,” titles which forbid the bearer from shaking hands with ordinary mortals like you and me. The way things are going, by the year 2000, three quarters of Nso male population may not accept to shake hands with anybody in this triangular oddity we call Cameroon.

The other day, for instance, I stood in the Kumbo Square and nearly eight of every ten people I spoke with refused to shake my hand. You know how it goes; you meet a man you knew in the past as Mr. So-and-So and you eagerly call his name and rush forward with an outstretched hand to greet him and the outraged fellow turns a fury-propelled look at you. Then one of his lackeys, who are always hovering around in hope of a free drink or food, loudly shouts at you for daring to call someone by name “who has already been spoilt”. By that you immediately understand that this fellow has been anointed with the traditional cam wood paste and is thus “untouchable” and unapproachable” (except, I guess, by women and this in the privacy of bedrooms far from the roving eyes of the madding crowd!).

Even here in Douala, when a Nso man goes back home on leave these days, you can almost be sure that he will be coming back as a “Shey” or a “Fai”; and if you dare to call him by name, or put out a hand to greet him, he angrily accuses you of trying to “wash” him, and don’t be surprised if he never ever says a word to you again! You do, however, sympathise with him when you hear of the large sums of money, and the time and energy that go into the acquisition of those titles!

Traditionally-speaking, and I stand to be corrected on this point, a “Shey”, or a “Fai”, or a “Shufai” must inherit a “compound” in Nsoland. It now seems that there are many more “Sheys” and “Fais” and “Shufais” than there are “compounds” to inherit, and many of those “compoundless” title-holders are now busy creating their own “compounds”. That is why it is not uncommon to hear someone claiming to be the “Fai” of Mvog-Ada, or the “Shufai” of Bonadibong, or the “Shey” of Bayangi quarters! Lordie! Lordie!

In this mad quest for titles, however, only the Nso woman seems to come out the loser. Eliminate the title of “Yaah” (Queen), which is bestowed on a minute few, and the Nso woman seems to have no other traditional title that can keep hand sacred and untouchable, although I understand she can now be elevated to the rank of a “Shey” as well. This is truly a man’s world!

Whatever the case, whether driven by greed or by a genuine desire to break loose from the rusty grips of a moribund traditional society, the Nso leaders of the late 1980s have, perhaps unwittingly, made a tremendous contribution towards eliminating the unhygienic habit of excessive handshaking in this country. Their secret is simple: award titles to as many people (including foreigners) as can afford to pay for them; then no one would ever dare shake hands with those title-holders, and diseases that are usually spread from hand-to-hand would miraculously disappear. How smart!!

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