Traffic patterns

In a class on Folk Religion we read Paul Hiebert’s article on “Traffic Patterns in Seattle and Hyderabad”. His comparison between Seattle and Hyderabad made me smile because after having lived in two African countries and visited several others, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Hiebert writes about the traffic in Hyderabad:

The first impression many Americans have is that Hyderabad traffic has no order. Obviously, this is false. So many people could not travel with so few accidents if there were none. Why, then, do Americans jump to this conclusion?

I am familiar with this kind of frustration when things don’t work like we think they should. Even if the official traffic rules in Mali are patterned after a Western example (France), there are often cultural rules that come into the mix.

Global Road Warrior has the following information for business people coming to Mali –Mali: Road Conditions

Driving conditions in the capital of Bamako can be particularly difficult and dangerous. Few traffic signals function regularly, and drivers often do not follow the rules of the road. In particular, the small, green, van-like buses called “bashays” pay no heed to oncoming traffic, and bashay drivers are known to change lanes unexpectedly without looking. Please exercise extreme caution when driving in Bamako.

Over the years of living in Mali and navigating the traffic in Bamako, I discovered the following principles:

1) Egalitarianism – everybody gets a chance

When you come to a crossing from a non-priority street, after some time of waiting, you have the right to go, priority or not. This is often indicated by stretching out your palm towards the oncoming traffic on the priority road. When I saw this for the first time, I  got really upset. I had priority and this was a violation of the rules. Plus, the person seemed to behave like a policeman but wasn’t one, and I thought: “Who the heck does he think he is?!?!” Once I understood the principle, I could see the advantage as I am, too, sometimes coming from a non-priority street, and if it went according to the rules, I might have to wait “until the cows come home.”

2) Cow path mentality – go wherever there is room

This leads me to the second principle. Most people in Bamako are more influenced by village life, than town life. Most grew up in a village or have spent a longer time with relatives in a village. Also, this kind of village mentality does not easily change and is passed on to second and third generation of town folk. I know from experience that there are few clearly marked roads in a village or between villages, and even less tarmac roads. So when the rain makes a stretch of road unusable, this is not a huge problem. People just find another way to get around the spot. By the end of the rainy season there are many different ways to get from point A to point B. The paths of cow herds moving up and down the country vary even more. Wherever there is no obstacle, you can go, and when there is an obstacle you just find a new path.

How does this now apply to the traffic in Bamako?

It’s simple – you go or drive wherever there is room. If there is a line of cars on the right side of the road, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, and nobody is coming on the left side of the road, you will of course use this “empty space” to circumvent the obstacle. This applies especially to bikes, motorbikes and pus pus (push carts). When you want to go over the Niger river on the new bridge, you will arrive on a kind of cloverleaf intersection / ingress ramp to join a two lane street. During rush hour these two lanes easily turn into four and a half lanes, as cars and motorbikes keep pushing their way in (four with cars, a half one with motorbikes).  Amazingly, this does not happen when there is a policeman in sight.

3) Negotiation – establishing relationships at every crossing

The third principle does not only apply to Bamako traffic, but to many other areas of Malian culture. Who gets to go and who has to wait is a matter of negotiation, not of rules. You have to make eye contact and try to discern the other persons intentions, which is often communicated by hand gestures and/or head movements. When I discovered this principle (thanks to a discussion about traffic with Ibrahima), at first I was annoyed. Is it not so much easier and more efficient to follow rules instead of negotiating at every crossing who gets to go? You can go much faster on a priority road, when you know that everybody sticks to the rules and nobody will step or drive into your way who shouldn’t. Plus, it is so much less stressful! This is certainly the normal reaction of a Westerner and rather ethnocentric. Interestingly, Hiebert quotes an experience from 1974 in London that showed that traffic lights and marked lanes do not guarantee more effectiveness.

On the other hand, negotiating your position in relationship to others is very much an overarching principle in many areas of life in Mali. So it is only natural to also apply it to the traffic. In a way it is a more people oriented approach, while rules easily diminish other people to objects.

Hiebert calls the two approaches immediate and mediate transactions:

Marked lanes, stop lights, and signs controlling space introduce a particular type of order to traffic, an order based on mediated transactions. In immediate transactions players calculate their moves by observing the actions of the other players. In mediate transactions they calculate their moves not directly on what others are doing, but on their relationship to a third mediating agency (Figure 1).


Hyderabad traffic seems to have a lot of similarity with Bamako traffic. Similar to my remark above, Hiebert also concludes that:

The introduction of mediate transactions tends to standardize and depersonalize interaction. In immediate transactions a player is related directly to other players. …. In mediate transactions a player responds to an impersonal matrix. The result is a measure of standardization and of depersonalization. The difference between the two types of transactions is roughly analogous to that between tennis and golf.

Of course, there are many more aspects that come into play: the fact that the majority of road users is probably illiterate and has not learned in school how to behave in different traffic situations (I am not even sure whether thosse that go to school have had any kind of road safety education or not); people riding a motorbikes do not need a license and therefore had no instruction on traffic rules; most participants have no idea that a truck can’t stop as fast as a pedestrian; women have the tendency to cast their eyes down and not look men into the eyes, which some also do when crossing the road; few have heard that it is wise to also keep the road users behind oneself in mind, e.g. when moving to the middle of the road or avoiding an obstacle; there is a patron-client thinking that makes the richer person more responsible than the penniless road user, which means that even if it is not your fault, the one with money gets to pay the bill; Western traffic rules were made for situations were bikes are a minority – in Bamako cars are several times outnumbered by bikes and this creates whole different dynamic.

All of this makes Bamako traffic a challenge for everybody, but even more so for expatriates.

Hiebert, Paul G. “Traffic Patterns in Seattle and Hyderabad.” Journal of Anthropological Research 32, no. No. 4 Winter (1976): 326-36.

Scenery, machinery or people?

In Anthropology we learned about the “scenery, machinery, people” approach of most Westerners: we often divide people in these three groups and treat them accordingly.

– The “scenery people” are for example those that we photograph during our vacations. We see them as decoration or objects on display, not as real people. We do not care whether the photo we are taking respects their dignity or not.

– The “machinery people” are those that we expect to function in a certain way, but again we do not see them as real people. For example, the gas station attendant or the cashier. On a good day, we might see them as people and connect in some personal way, but most of the time we treat them as “machinery” not as people.

– The “real people” are the small group we have a relationship with and care about. We see them as people with individual personalities, emotions, opinions, gifts and needs. On bad days we might expect even people in this group to just function and not require any “maintenance”: such as the burlesque husband coming home from work in the evening who expects his wife to have a meal ready, as well as the newspaper and the slippers, and be left in peace to watch TV by his children because he is tired. In this case he does not see his wife and children as people and does not treat them as such. They are not allowed to have needs.

Whom we expect to just be “scenery” or function as “machinery” is often culturally defined. And this is where culture shock often comes as a natural result.

– The market person in Africa does not function like a cashier in the West, who just rings up the goods we picked and lets us leave without any personal interaction. No matter how small the purchase, you cannot buy anything on an African market without going through a certain amount of greetings, both on arrival and leave taking. Depending on the country you are in and on the type of good you are buying, you will also need to bargain.

○ I remember a story I once heard of a Westerner who did not have the time on one day to do the required bargaining. He told his friend on the market, “Please for once let’s not do it, just ask any price and I will pay it.” His African friend was deeply offended, not – as we might expect – happy about the opportunity to ask for more than usually. For him it was a disregard for his dignity as a human. He had been treated as machinery.

– In many African countries there is a strong awareness of hierarchy but despite of it every employee still expects to be greeted by others in the same organization. Not greeting them robs them of their dignity as humans and reduces them to “machinery.”

○ The context of greetings is one example where I discovered how contradictory courtesy can be. When I come into the office and see two people talking with each other, it feels very impolite to me as European to interrupt the conversation in order to greet them. But this intuition is wrong in the African context. According to African courtesy it would be impolite to not interrupt and walk by them without greeting them. Or as a friend put it – “treat them as if they were trees” – which again expresses the idea of treating others as humans not as things.

– Requesting permission to take the photo of somebody might seem odd for Westerners but is a good rule of thumb in Africa. People do not like being “scenery” but want to be respected as humans. It might mean that you cannot take a picture if a person does not consent to it.

○ Probably there are also different traditional ideas that come into play of what happens to a person’s soul when somebody takes a photo of them. I have rarely heard them stated but only read about these ideas. Even though many things have changed, these ideas might still linger in the back of people’s minds.

○ Another complication is the idea that you might make a lot of money with the photo you are taking. Even if this is not the case for most of us, people have heard about this and want a share in your gain. Some will not give you permission to take a photo without a payment. Since I don’t have enough money to pay everybody whom I photograph, I usually chose not to take that photo. One market lady however managed to convince me nevertheless: “You are happy about the photo, so why don’t you want to give me some happiness, too?”

– Doing everything on your own and alone is unnatural for many people in Africa. Going alone to the market, carrying all your shopping alone, eating alone, staying alone in your room/house, etc. Sharing burdens and joys is an important part of most if not all Africa cultures.

○ Westerners might consider offers to carry their shopping a nuisance. However in African cultures younger people are obliged to honor older people by carrying whatever they have. In return the older person will give a blessing to the younger person. This can be a spoken blessing, in some cases accompanied with spitting (saliva being considered a means of transferring power), or a small coin or other kind of tangible gift. Along the same lines, a market seller feels obliged to send a young person with his customer to help carry the shopping to the car, who then will be expected to give some small token of gratitude to the young helper.

○ The African give and take is not guided by rules of how much to give but by what people have. Many financial requests will be quantified by “whatever you can give.” This puts Westerners in a bind, because we are not used to think in these terms and often have so much more than what we find appropriate to give in such a situation. In addition, local people often have wrong ideas of how much we really have, to the point of seriously believing that our financial supplies are unlimited because we can print our own money.

In all these examples, there are people who want to be seen as people and treated as people which is in contradiction to many of our Western habits and laws of efficiency. The Western habit of just saying “Hi!” and walking by clashes with the African understanding of politeness. Africans would probably never consider a time spend with other people a “waste of time.” My guess is that there is no single situation in African cultures that allows people to treat others “as if they were trees” – trees that you can pass without greeting, that you can expect to function and give you shade or whose photo you can take without permission. People are always people and want to be treated as such, not as “scenery” or “machinery.”

P.S. I know that speaking about “African cultures” or “African” in general is a sweeping generalization that does not do justice to the variety of cultures in Africa. However, I have the impression that the points mentioned above apply to many of them, maybe to all, and possible also to many if not most non-Western cultures.

Ancestor Worship?

It made me smile when Ben Byerly wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog entry about ancestor worship in England. I thought it was great to help us see our own culture from a different perspective. I liked it even better when he gave one of his African colleagues the opportunity to talk about his research into ancestor worship:

Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective (Part 1)

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors?

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

As you can see in the comments, this is not news to the anthropological world. But the rest of the world, especially the Christian world might not be aware that what had been labeled “ancestor worship” for a long time is not necessarily worship. We so easily judge other cultures using the wrong grid (looking through the lenses of our own culture) and at the same time justifying things that are very similar in our own culture.

Tribute to Tom Avery

I just heard that Tom Avery died, and found this neat story on the following blog:

The difference a friend made « From My Heart, Out Of My Mind

“For nearly 20 years Jack and Jo Popjes, Canadian missionaries with Wycliffe, tried to learn the music of the Canela people of northeastern Brazil. Jack and Jo could not grasp the subtleties of Canela music. The Canelas showed little interest in writing any new music for themselves. Despite their love of music, the Canelas sang only ancient songs. They did not compose new music. Everyone was content to sing the old songs about ghosts and water monsters, just as their ancestors had done. It would have been easy for the Popjeses to simply translate hymns (using the Canela language and the original European/American music). “But this would have caused problems,” they report. “Hymn translation can perpetuate the false idea that Christianity is a foreign religion.”

Jack and Jo sought help from Dr. Tom Avery, a Wycliffe ethnomusicologist also working in Brazil at the time. Tom did extensive library research on the tribe. He then went with Jack and Jo and recorded Canela music so he could analyze it using a computer program he had written. After making recordings of Canela music Tom transcribed the music note by note, aided by computer-generated graphs of the melodies. Every part of the Canela music system was examined — form, melody, rhythm, scale, and more. He discovered that the intervals between notes of the Canela scale differ from the European scale. Therefore, Canela music cannot be played on a piano, because some of the notes would “fall in the cracks.”

Then Tom Avery and Jack Popjes teamed up to create 23 Canela songs with Christian lyrics, most of which were direct quotations from Scripture. With lyric sheets in hand and a tape recording of themselves singing the songs, Avery and the Popjeses arrived in the main villages. The moment they started playing the tape, the Canelas became very excited. Within minutes, the Canela men started to join in. Soon the women added a high-pitched harmony part. “I just stood there and bawled. It was so perfect,” Jack remembers.

Over the next few nights, hundreds of villagers gathered to learn the new songs. One Canela song leader told the Popjeses, “I never realized we could make up our own songs.” Another Canela told them: “You have been here all these years and gave us writing. Your friend Tom has only been here a little while, and he taught us how to sing to God.” Jack estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of the tribe have now placed their faith in Jesus Christ. New Christians enjoy freedom from the fear of ghosts and evil spirits. Looking back on their whole ministry, Jack says providing the songs may have been their most important contribution. “While the Bible translation was essential, the Scripture in those songs did more for them than the Bible translation.” “