I had spent about a year with the local community at Awgu, then in the East Central State, soon after the civil war, before I learnt a few things about the local attitude to handshakes. I was the only doctor in the 60-bed hospital which also doubled as a Midwifery Training School.
It was a big challenge running the hospital, especially just after completing my internship at UCH, Ibadan where I had trained. I could say the training was relevant to the times and needs of the community in which I found myself. They also quietly inculcated in us sound ethics and professionalism not just in words but also by practical examples.
I was, therefore, shocked beyond words when the chairman of the send-off reception held in my honour, a well-respected community leader in his speech said, “Dr. Ben you’re a good man, hardworking, considerate and kind but you lack just one thing, you wouldn’t greet us except we greeted you first!” “That’s not me,” I thought in a swift denial of the allegation.
How can a well-bred, friendly Yoruba man who greeted all and sundry at every opportunity be so insolently proud? That isn’t me!
I seized the opportunity given me to respond to ask specific questions. “Sir, I am sorry, I had offended you and others by my attitude. Would you kindly explain where I had gone wrong?” I pleaded.
The old man did not mince words, “You would never initiate a handshake. We always have to stretch out our hands first to shake hands with you.” I took another look at him.
This man was definitely much older than my father. He said it with such passion and pent-up feelings that I could see that he had been waiting for an opportunity like this to tell it to my face. Someone near him muttered under his breath in Igbo language, which I had mastered in my short stay, “O b? mpako,” meaning, “He is arrogant.”
My knees almost buckled under my weight. I immediately went round the old men in the gathering, shook their hands and gave each and every one an affectionate hug. I then went on to explain to them that if I had done what I had just done in Yoruba land, I would have been severely reprimanded with stern looks and not too complimentary words.
Among the Yoruba, it is regarded as impolite for a young person to stretch out his hand to initiate a handshake with an older man. The older person must initiate the handshake first or there would be no handshake. What a clash of cultures?
The practice of hand-shaking has been in existence well over 2000 years. It is believed to derive its origin in the olden days when people lived in mortal fear of being attacked by strangers carrying small hidden weapons and charms. Two strangers approaching each other with open right hands and shaking hands demonstrated lack of any concealed weapons or charms.
But, are open hands really weapon free in today’s world? Hands contain massive weapons of mass destruction in the form of millions of germs consisting of bacteria, viruses and parasites. Our hands contain, on the average, about 5,000 germs at any given time. The nature of the work you do may also add to the number of germs on your hands.
If you love picking your nose or go to the toilet without washing your hands or scratching the covered parts of your body, you are also transferring other sets of germs to your hands. Now imagine exchanging handshakes with someone else! He is exchanging his weapons of mass destruction with yours.
Quite often, we pass these on to door knobs, car doors and other things we hold in our hands for others to pick up. If you are on the hospital premises or in our dirty, stinking local markets, without washing your hands, you would have accumulated enough weapons of mass destruction to cause you one illness or the other.
Handshaking is a filthy disease spreading ritual with serious consequences for the eyes and other parts of the body. Thousands of people had died from Ebola.
Do you remember Patrick Sawyer who sneaked into the country on July 20, 2014? He was a big human weapon of mass destruction and Nigeria would have paid dearly for it but for the vigilance of some airport staff, the experience of late Dr. Adadevoh, who literarily gave her life to prevent the spread of the infection.
Apollo conjunctivitis, which causes epidemics every now and then is often spread by handshakes while Trachoma conjunctivitis, a chronic bacterial infection of the eye, has been known until recently a leading cause of blindness in Nigeria and in several parts of the world.
Washing hands after every contact has been known to contain handshake transmitted infections. But if I wash my hands after making contact with a potential source of infection (which includes your hands) and you don’t wash your own hands, I may still suffer the consequences of your folly or indiscretion. So should we continue shaking hands?
Shaking hands with a person with Ebola is a death wish; with someone with Apollo it’s risking an eye infection. But the same goes with physical contact with things they have touched. Are there other acceptable alternatives to shaking hands? If I stretch out my hand and you ignore me, I will say you are “mpako.”
Until then, wash your hands or use sanitizers as often as you shake hands or touch potentially contaminated surfaces. And if you work in hospitals, please do less of hand shaking.