October 2014: In sociable West Africa, it’s usual to shake hands on meeting family, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances. It’s a sign of friendship, connection, concern, and even children approach newcomers with their hands solemnly outstretched.
This welcome can progress further, to back slapping, fist bumping, into a hug or, on occasion, into ebullient high fives and finger stars.
In Dakar, you might add 2 kisses, French-style. Liberians favour the finger snap – take the other person’s hand, shake and then slide your fingers out, snap the other person’s fingers and click in the air. Snap.
But the necessity to prevent the spread of Ebola by not touching others has given rise to a new vogue – the Ebola greeting. West Africans have invented gestures that, while they do not involve contact, are just as warm and friendly.
From Monrovia to Dakar, from Freetown to Conakry, inventive West Africans are coming up with their own ‘hands-free’ ways to greet each other. They range from a subtle bow or rub of the palms to the more flamboyant gestures of bumping bottoms or throwing your hands in the air in a star shape, or the gentle foot-pat – half-greeting, half-dance – rubbing your left foot to your counterpart’s right.
This is the greeting that’s a sign of concern and an expression of love
Perhaps the sweetest greeting is the hand across heart gesture. “This is the greeting that’s a sign of concern and an expression of love,” explains Varlee Sannor from Voinjama, which has been at the epicentre of Ebola since it hit Liberia earlier this year.
“You know that we used to use hand shaking, but to prevent the spread of Ebola, that connective feeling must be expressed through some other means,” he adds.
It’s an easy one. Simply place your arm across your chest, and put your hand on your heart. You can tap it once or twice too. Putting your hand on your heart is a sign that you care.
Post your #HandsOnHearts pictures to Facebook and Twitter to show your support for children and communities hit by Ebola, and tag 3 friends to extend the group hug.