Social and common etiquette among the BaTonga

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By Elliott Siamonga

THE correctness of the BaTonga behaviour is striking and apparently based on a very strict code of etiquette.
The precedence and duties of each individual are so clearly defined there is never any discussion about who offers the prayers at a religious gathering, who speaks at an important occasion, who hands out beer or receives the first cup at a beer party.
Greetings are performed in a slow and deliberate manner by both parties.
For instance, when the BaTonga men are sitting at their village meetings (padare) and a stranger approaches, he sits down quietly, claps his hands two or three times while the men continue their talk.
At a suitable break in the discussion he claps his hands again, and is answered by a similar clap from the most senior of the villagers.
BaTonga elders say this is a sign that he is welcome and may now give the reasons for his visit, when he leaves, and if the visit has lasted several days he is bidden farewell at the entrance of the village, but is accompanied for about a kilometre or more, before the villagers take leave of him — a courtesy which implies an interest in the visitor up to the last moment of his visit, pleasure in his company, and a reluctance to part with him.
Friends and relations greet each other according to age and superiority. The younger must be the first to greet and enquire about the health of the older one, except in the case of a son in-law who must always be the first to make these advances when he meets any of his father-in-law’s family, whatever their age.
Hands are not shaken unless the occasion lends itself: the usual greeting is made by clapping hands.
Men clap with their palms and fingers extended and women with the palms of their hands at right angles.
Elders say if a woman meets an older person on her path, she claps her hands and at the same time bends both knees forward.
She does this respectful gesture also when she hands an article to her husband or any senior man of the family.
When greeting an important person such as a chief, the men sit on the ground and clap their hands twice when the chief enters the circle.
After a short silence, they clap their hands again in unison, very fast, and keep up this rhythmic clapping for some time.
The BaTonga eating habits are regulated by a special ode of behaviour.
For instance, no man at the dare starts to eat before his elders.
He does not finish eating before older men and consequently, he must never rise and walk away while the elders are still eating.
It is common that when the BaTonga man is given food, he does not eat it alone, however, hungry he may be.
He shares it with the others.
The BaTonga child is brought up on the principle that food must be shared.
Good manners and discipline are part of the BaTonga child’s upbringing.
The whole family takes a hand in this process; the parents teach obedience and administer punishment when necessary, the grandparents play their part by telling the child how to behave towards seniors, visitors and strangers while aunts on the parental side teach correct relationships towards the opposite sex.
Receiving and returning a present are also arts practised by the BaTonga as simple etiquette.
However small the gift the person is receiving, they clap hands quickly once or twice and then extends palms upwards, little fingers touching towards the giver, the gesture which combines humility with the implication that the present is so large and precious that the recipient needs both hands to hold it.
In settling quarrels the BaTonga have learnt the wisdom of the ‘indirect approach’ which allows for negotiation through a third person and encourages the antagonists to keep apart at a time when their tempers are frayed and good relationship might be lost.
In minor family quarrels it is the father’s eldest sister and her family who try to settle the dispute.
The important factor is the delay which reduces the tension and encourages a more calm solution.
The indirect approach is particularly well illustrated in the preliminaries leading to marriage, a situation full of potentially explosive feeling between parents and children as well as between the two families.
A son, having made up his mind that he wants to marry, goes to his father’s eldest sister and tells her everything he knows about the girl and her family.
She then discusses the marriage with her brother; if his reaction is not favourable, she will tell the boy to wait for a while in the hope that the father may change his mind.
But if the marriage is considered suitable the father talks to his son and puts the negotiations with the girls’ family into the hands of a go-between or munyai.
Thanks to the munyai the two families avoid meeting each other until all arrangements are made, including the delicate one of settling the bride price.
One hears often that the African’s (BaTonga) progress started with the arrival of Europeans that one is apt to forget the civilised form of human relationships and behaviour that he had evolved for himself.

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