Courtesy and Hospitality

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Courtesy and Hospitality


Clan and Village Communication. After the year 500, the populations of Soninke towns in the kingdom of Ghana averaged about 500 to 1,500 people. Larger cities, such as Kumbi Saleh, developed as centers of trade on the Niger and Senegal Rivers while about 80 percent of the people lived in small farming compounds and worked the land cooperatively. Several farming compounds where families worked together formed a clan and from it a village. A village leader appointed by the local king assigned land to each family as needed. One family might be assigned to grow food on a piece of land, while another received the right to harvest fruit from trees growing on the same property. If a disagreement arose about who could do what, families could go to the local king for a decision or to the king in the capital city. Writing in 1068, the Spanish Muslim geographer al-Bakri noted that in one West African town, when the king sat to eat a meal, a drum was beaten and women came to dance for the king. No one else in the town could do anything until the king was done eating. After the scraps from his meal were thrown into the river, the king’s aides shouted loudly so that people knew they could proceed with their daily activity.

Respect for Kings. The writers of Arabic works about West Africa, either from firsthand observations or from travelers’ reports, often mentioned the courtesy and hospitality of the people of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, and Hausa. For example, during his journey across the western Sudan (1352-1353) Ibn Battuta observed the protocol for greeting a ruler at court. He wrote that when Mansa Sulaiman (ruled 1341-1360) of Mali asked to see one of his subjects, that person took off his clothes and put on rags, took off his clean turban and put on a dirty one. He then approached the king holding up his true garments with his trousers halfway up his leg as a gesture of submission. The subject then beat the ground with his elbows and prepared to listen to the ruler in the position of someone performing a rak’a (a unit of Islamic prayer involving recitation and bowing). If the king talked to the subject, he uncovered his back and sprinkled a handful of dust on his head and back, as if washing with water. This behavior was considered good manners among the people of Mali. Whenever the ruler spoke to a subject, everyone present took off their turbans to listen. When someone provided a report of his accomplishments to the king, others expressed their agreement by pulling back the strings of their bows and released them with a “twang.” If the king replied, “You have spoken the truth,” the subject again bared his back and sprinkled himself with dust.

King-to-King Greetings. The great leaders of the ancient world did not always greet one another as equals. Al-Umari (1301-1349) of Damascus, the author of a history of the Mamluk administration of Egypt and Syria, wrote about the meeting between the Sultan al-Malik an-Nasir (ruled 1293-1341) of Egypt and Mansa Musa (ruled 1312-1337) of Mali, basing his account on a story from Emir Abu I-Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Had, who escorted distinguished guests, perhaps the court griot. Al-Umari wrote that in 1324, during his pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa visited the sultan’s court at the Citadel in Cairo. When he arrived in the sultan’s royal presence, Mansa Musa was instructed to kiss the ground in greeting and honor. He “refused outright saying: ‘How may this be?’ Then an intelligent man who was with him whispered to him something we could not understand and he said: ‘I make obeisance to God who created me!’ Then he prostrated himself and went forward to the sultan. The sultan half rose to greet him and sat him by his side.” In recognition of Mansa Musa’s greatness, the sultan treated him with honor, but he did not always let Mansa Musa sit in his presence. He did give Mansa Musa a gray horse with a covering of yellow satin and many camels and equipment. In return Mansa Musa sent many gifts to the sultan.

Hospitality to Travelers. Ibn Battuta, author of one of the most reliable works about West Africa during his time, wrote that during his journey through the kingdom of Mali, travelers did not need to carry food or money. Instead they carried pieces of salt, glass trinkets, and some spices, especially cloves. When travelers came to a village, the women of the village allowed them to exchange these commodities for as much milk, chicken, flour, rice, and cowpea meal as they wanted. He also wrote about the generosity and hospitality of the people. On arriving in one town he met a man of “noble virtues,” who gave him a cow as a welcome gift. In that same town, an interpreter sent Ibn Battuta a bullock; another man gave him two sacks of funi (plants) and a gourd filled with gharti (a fruit similar to a pear); and someone else in the town gave him rice. After such generosity, Ibn Battuta was surprised when Mansa Sulaiman sent him only “three loaves of bread and a piece of beef fried in gharti and a gourd containing yogurt.” Having

thought the king would give him cloth and money, Ibn Battuta later confronted Mansa Sulaiman, saying he had been in Mali for two months and had not received a welcome gift. The king then gave him a house and an allowance for the remainder of his stay and—at the end of Ramadan—more money.


The Fon people who lived in Togo before they migrated to present-day Benin, where they founded the kingdom of Dahomey in the seventeenth century, are known for their riddles and proverbs.


Hole within hole, hair all round, pleasure comes from inside.
(Answer: A flute being played by a bearded man.)

A thing leaves the house bent over and returns home straight.
(Answer: A water jar.)

A thing is naked going out, but returning, the body is covered with clothes.
(Answer: Corn.)

My father eats with his anus and defecates through his mouth.
(Answer: A gun.)

One throws a thing across the hedge, and it falls in one heap.
(Answer: A frog.)

A large hat in the midst ofweeds.
(Answer: A latrine.)

One thing falls in the water with a loud voice, another falls in the water with a soft voice.
(Answer: A bottle of oil, a carrying basket.)


The big do not eat out of the hand of the small.

He who makes the gunpowder wins the battles.

War lies in wait on a narrow path.

A snake bit me; I see a worm and I am afraid.

If one wants to catch a large fish he must give somethingto the stream.

Mawu [the creator] sent sickness into the world but he also sent medicine to cure.

When one is at sea he does not quarrel with theboatman.

The fish trap that catches no fish is brought back to the house.

Source: “Some Dahomean Riddles,” “Some Dahomean Proverbs,” in A Treasury of African Folklore, edited by Harold Courlander (New York: Crown, 1975), p. 183.


Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African AmericanExperience (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999).

Pekka Masonen, “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean,” in Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change: Papers for the Third Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, edited by M’hammed Sabour and Knut S. Vikor (Bergen: Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 1997), pp. 116-142.

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Malik, and Songbay: Life in Medieval Africa (New York: Holt, 1994).

Mary Penick Motley, Africa, Its Empires, Nations, and People (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969).

D. T. Niane, ed., Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, volume 4 of General History of Africa (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1984).

Ivan Van Sertima, ed., Blacks in Science, Ancient and Modern (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Books, 1983).

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