Nuzaa: Mampruli for ‘left hand.’

Early on during PST we learned that using the left hand for things such as greetings, pointing and eating, is offensive in Ghana. The left hand is reserved for the dirty doings in life. Like wiping your butt. If you really want to offend someone, use your left to do whatever and do not apologize.

I am sure various other African countries make this distinction between the two hands but my only other reference to this cultural practice is India. It is, bottom line, pun intended, a thing of hygiene. Right is for eating, left for wiping yourself. Simple, practical. But for a leftie who was not raised with this practice, it is really difficult! It took me all of PST to stop handing things to people with my left. I have offended various strangers by waiving with my left (see previous post on greetings) and disgusted many a local by eating with my left.

This manual distinction has made me extremely aware of what I use my hands for, searching for patterns I did not know where there. Now, it is even rewiring my brain, influencing which I use for what. I make a supreme effort to only use my right to eat, even in private, for fear of slipping up in front of Ghanaians.

It has gotten to the point that I feel I am neglecting my left. As if saying to it “I prefer the right now” or “you are no good, you are dirty and beneath the right.”What is this hierarchy I have created? Or have I? The left, in many cultures and religions, is associated with evil. Sinistro (sinister) is Latin for left and according to one of the top hits on Google, the Bible has 25 unfavorable references on the left hand. My American grandfather was a lefty and also Catholic. In school, the nuns would beat his left hand until he was forced to write with his right, the hand associated with goodness and power. For example the term ‘right-hand man’ and the Bible again, has references in favor of the right:

“Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God.” Luke 22:69

So even in me has it been ingrained that left is bad and right is good.

My feelings of guilt, for ‘abandoning’ my left must then stem from something more personal. Despite its sinister implications, I have always taken pride in the rarity of being a lefty and vanity at people noticing I am a lefty. As if I am somehow special because this uncommon trait was decided for me, was beyond my control. And all of a sudden, I have to hide my automatic use of it? All of a sudden it is shameful to use it in mundane tasks such as the use of a spoon? Ok. Identity crisis rant over.

Slowly but surely this distinction is losing its emphasis here in Ghana. A story a local told me is a perfect example of this. A few years ago, a man who was an aspiring politician, was one of the first to buy a motorcycle in the district. He would drive around, greeting voters. When elections came around, he lost by a clear margin. They say the reason for this was people thought he was rude for always waiving with his left when driving by. At the time, people did not yet know that one cannot let go of the throttle, located on the right handle of a motorcycle, whilst in motion. Now motorcycles are commonplace and this is common knowledge. So, people do not think twice about left-handed waves – at least from motorcycle drivers.

However, if you are talking on your cell phone and holding it with your right, generally, Ghanaians still go through the effort of switching hands to free up the right and wave. When at the market and the vendor is eating or has the right occupied for some reason (e.g. breastfeeding a baby), they pass the change with the left and say ‘sorry for left’ to indicate no malice is intended.

It has been six months and I still feel and look awkward using my right to eat: my elbow sticks out to get food in at the ‘right’ angle, my wrist tingles from all the bending, fingers gingerly cling to the spoon (that is sometimes available) and my left sits there, knowing it could do better.


**Disclaimer: The content of this blog is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Ghana Government.**


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Glolance says:

    This is an islamic practice, you eat with your right, you greet with your right, your left is used for unclean things (like, yes, wiping your butt) and I’m sure it’s still a thing of respect. Erik got briefed on this every time they’d go on missions to the middle east and when the Americans were conscious of this and acted accordingly out of respect, a lot of the locals would hand stuff back or point at things using their left on purpose.


    1. ghanagogo says:

      Aahh, didnt think religion could have been the origin cuz all Ghanaians follow this, Muslim or not.
      Aww, I’m sad the locals used their left on purpose 😦


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