“When a handshake goes beyond the elbow, it becomes something else.” Most of us are familiar with this proverb, bequeathed to us by our ancestor Chinua Achebe and those before him. But what does a handshake become when it goes beyond the elbow?
Does it become an arm-wrestling match, a lascivious tickle or simply an undesirable touch? I must confess I had not thought seriously about these matters until recently, when Mzee Joe Biden, President Barack Obama’s vice-president, faced almost certain disqualification from running for the presidential primaries in 2020. This is because a few sisters have come forward and blamed him for touching them, in the past, in what they felt were undesirable or inappropriate ways.
You of course know that, non-political as I am, I still have a strong interest in what happens in the USA, since a significant segment of my immediate family is American. Be that as it may, I have so far no specific preferences for who should be the next president of America (although that “next” may be revealing). Joe Biden, however, has always struck me as a “good guy”, the sort of human face (as contrasted to the angelic Michelle-Barack one) of the Obama presidency.
But when it comes to my sisters and unwanted or unwelcome touches, there are no compromises about the principle. “Bina na ngai na respect (dance with me with respect)”, as the Lingala song has it. In other words, treat me with total respect, always and in all our interactions. We macho and pseudo-macho males should be particularly attentive to this message. As I predicted when the #MeToo bomb exploded on the world last year, the zero-tolerance point would soon be reached, if it is not already upon us.
Now I am almost sure that the era of the presumptuous male (the “androcene’ epoch, if we can indulge in a new coinage) is done and gone. Analysts call it a paradigmatic shift, I believe. Society is reading from a complete new script, and the sooner we learn to read from the same text, and interpret it accurately, the better it will be for all of us and for our relationships.
I am not trying to frighten anyone into becoming a neurotic, timid and tongue-tied introvert, incapable of establishing or maintaining a healthy relationship. But the post-#MeToo generation, and those of us who have accidentally stumbled into it, must learn to decode the signals correctly, in all interactions and relationships. A “no”, definitely and always, means “no”. So does silence.
In the new social dispensation, never mistake silence for consent. Otherwise, it will return to haunt you. I need not mention any names here, but remember that we live in a highly “exposed” world, and you will never know from where that “footage” pops up to prove that that eyelash or that nostril totally contradicts the silence that you took for consent. There was an old legal dictum (in good Latin) that “qui tacet consentit (s/he who keeps quiet consents)”. I leave it to our learned lawyers to guide us on how to interpret it.
But my advice, especially to my children and grandchildren, is that every interaction should be a transaction. This does not refer to commercial or other such deals. Rather, the suggestion is that all of our encounters and contacts should be negotiations based on clear and mutual respect, understanding and agreement. Indeed, as I hinted earlier, far from inhibiting communication, these kinds of relationship require and demand a very high level of self-expression, especially oracy, clear verbal proficiency.
We should not make the mistake of replacing the word with a touch. Equally importantly, we men should disabuse ourselves of the caveman conceit and fallacy that forcing our attentions on women is a way of paying tribute to their attractiveness, brilliance or generosity. However powerful, famous, rich, strong or attractive we may think we are, we must understand that every woman, however poor, fragile, insignificant or vulnerable, is entitled to her own womanly, human dignity and social space.
Jaywalking across the defining lines of that space and invading a person’s self-perception and sense of self-worth automatically exposes the invader to judgement and, believe you me, in this new era, judgement and punishment will come. A handshake does not even have to go anywhere beyond the elbow to become something else. Holding it just those few seconds longer than necessary can render you suspect.
Groping, grabbing and gawky “compliments” will all increasingly become crimes against propriety and none of us can tread too cautiously for criticism. Indeed, I dare not point any finger, as I well know several others may be pointing at me. All we can do is to apologise to those we might have offended and then promise to try and do better in the future.
There is, however, another problem related to this touch and contact protocol. This is the cultural angle, or what we are used to doing in our communities. How do we incorporate these into the expected interactional appropriateness suggested by the new era? Or is there a possibility of compromise? Remember, old habits die hard, and simply prescribing against them, or proscribing them, may not be the best approach.
Moreover, the practices vary a lot. Some communities strictly prohibit any public physical contacts between males and females outside the immediate relationship circle (as in the Swahili umaharimu). Others insist that in order to properly greet anyone, male or female, you have to put a hand around them (uguhubiira, in Kinyarwanda). Which way should we go?
This brings us back to what we suggested earlier, the need to negotiate. We are a new society and we need to negotiate, work out a suitable culture for ourselves, provided that it is based on that non-negotiable principle: total mutual respect.
Bina na ngai na respect!
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]