Living the Left-Handed Life…in West Africa

I remember one of my first serious talks with an RPCV, my 9th grade Honors French teacher was asking me if I was left handed. He served for two years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formally Zaire) and then stayed on for another two years working in their PC office. 

I was puzzled? Why was this important? Does it really matter which hand is dominant. Well, in West Africa it does. Simply put, typically when reliving oneself the left hand is used for wiping. Therefore the left hand is considered “dirty.” Eating, shaking hands, giving and receiving objects (especially money,) writing, and everything else is ALMOST ALWAYS done with the right hand. For example, if you hand someone money with your left hand it is considered to be extraordinarily disrespectful. 

Luckily for me I am not completely left hand dominant. I might consider myself technically ambidextrous. I do a lot of things with my right hand…I throw a ball with my right, I cut with my right, I open doors with my right, I tend to switch hands when I am eating. I think that’s because both of my parents are righties. Adapting to eating with only my right hand was actually pretty easy. You put your phone flashlight in your left hand, and then you eat with your right.

I guess the biggest thing is that people just think it’s weird. Most people here are not left handed. Today I was shopping a marche in a large city and they thought I was cursed because I write with my left hand. Usually when people point it out and say that it’s bad I say that there are lots of people who are left handed, including our current president, Barack Obama. And then they’re like…well if Obama is left handed, then that’s ok.

Sometimes it’s not the HCNs, but other PCVs who are the most critical. I was with another PCV on vacation and she got really angry and critical with me for looking at things in a souvenir shop with my left hand. I said to her, “I’m not shaking hands with someone or handing them an object, so I don’t really see what the problem is.” She felt that it was culturally insensitive to do that. I mean, one of the most important parts of cultural integration is that you will never be exactly like the culture you are trying to assimilate into. This is especially the case if you are a Left handed pasty Caucasian Jewish female with blondish hair. I am left handed. It’s always going to be a part of who I am, and as long as I don’t give or receive money with my left hand, that’s being culturally sensitive.

It’s part of my identity. I wouldn’t change a thing. It might make me a weirdo, people may think I’m a witch, people may think that I’m strange…I’m proud to be a lefty…and that’s that.

3 responses to “Living the Left-Handed Life…in West Africa

  1. linda marcuccilli

    hi sara – that is soooooo very interesting – i’m first generation italian – and the only one to write with my left-hand – i was actually a ‘marvel’ whenever we went to see the fam back in the old county – they never saw anyone write with their left hand….i guess the teachers in italy (and france) back in the day ‘made’ their students write with their ‘right’ hand if they saw them ‘write’ with their left hands….from what my fam told me, they said ‘it just wasn’t right’ interesting story, sara. take care, girl!!

  2. I’m left handed as well and I served in Niger. Now I find it difficult to hand over money, grab things with my left hand – even when I’m in the drive through, I twist my body to give the money with my right hand!!🙂 Hahah The Obama example is great! Learning to eat with my right hand was really weird at first but now I can change over to both hands, which I’m sure is a nice skill to have?? Hahahah🙂 Good luck!!

  3. Jambo Sara!

    Well I faced similar experiences and stereotypes as you did in West Africa. Growing up as a left handed in the coastal town (Mombasa)of Kenya in East Africa was a very big challenge to me. The society really discouraged L-H people. I tried using my right hand, I just couldn’t. Now, many years later, I still take the first left turn when I come across a corner..LOL! And my first step is always from the left leg🙂

    I recently felt the need to open a Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/LeftHandersInAfrica) – which I did, that connects Left Handed people in Kenya and the whole of Africa to enable Us share our experiences and try to make the society we live in understand that we may be left handed but we are always right!😀

    I am proud to be left handed. It feels sooo cool.
    PS: I’ll really appreciate a LIKE from you on our page to show support😉

    Much Love from Kenya!
    Best,
    Muthoni.

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