Passing the Purse

In Burkina Faso,a person lower on the social hierarchy does not let someone higher status carry anything.

Dayle and Eleanor returning from the market in Niangoloko

So, when Dayle’s mother came to visit us in rural Niangoloko, Dayle had to carry all the purchases back home when they went to the market together. Allowing your visiting mother to carry something on a shopping trip was the sign of a lazy and disrespectful daughter. People were not shy to let Dayle know that.

Here in Ghana it is the same. When we arrive at the office in the morning, one or more of the staff run to carry our computer and lunch bags into the office for us. As self-sufficient and egalitarian Americans, we don’t like it. But, I have seen the hurt in the eyes of local people who don’t understand when Americans resist having their stuff carried.

Once, this social feature allowed me to do an analysis of the social hierarchy in village in Burkina Faso in about 3 minutes.

Daniel Kompaore, Director of ANTBA, on a visit to translation projects (not the trip in this story)

Daniel Kompaore, Director of ANTBA, on visit to translation projects (not trip in this story)

An American couple was visiting. They represented an agency helping fund Bible translation. We took them to a rural location where a translation was underway. I was in the vehicle with the couple, the director of a national Bible translation agency (ANTBA), and a driver. When we got to the location, many people had gathered to welcome the couple. The American woman got out of the vehicle with her handbag. Immediately, the Director reached out and took it from her to carry it as the international visitors were higher status than he. In the blink of an eye, the driver took it from the Director as he could not let his Director carry a bag while he was around. I rushed to the side of the worried woman to assure her that no harm would come to her bag. Meanwhile, the chairman of the board of the local church saw the driver with the bag, he took it from him, as visitors always have the highest status. The pastor took it from him. One of the translators took it from the pastor. The bag continued its descent down the social hierarchy until it ended up in the hands of a small boy who dutifully and cheerfully carried it at the heels of the visitors until we got back in the vehicle to leave, when someone of middle status took it from him and gave it back to the visitor.

I am sure that the village had no written rules about who should carry whose bag, but everyone knew where they fit in the social hierarchy and they took the bag from those higher and relinquished it to those lower. The bag passing from hand to hand told me who had higher and lower status. I was too enamored watching the bag go from hand to hand to take it when it was my turn.

Watching the bag go from hand to hand also gave me a revelation. An advantage of  hierarchical societies is that everyone (except those at the very top and very bottom, of which there are few), learns to cheerfully serve and cheerfully be served.

7 thoughts on “Passing the Purse

  1. Ed, Are you going to be available to speak at our church in Grants Pass while you’re here? Sue MaynardC&MA Neighborhood Church on Highland Ave. Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2013 15:07:26 +0000 To:


  2. Pingback: What’s the News | Heart Language Observations

  3. Pingback: Gaston’s evaluation | Heart Language Observations

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