In Ouagadougou on the street where we lived, I was known as “Matthew baba” – Matthew’s father. A few people knew my name, but everyone knew Matthew baba.
In his book “The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes“, Joe Kapolyo writes about how Africa’s feel about this practice:
We feel very dignified when upon the birth of our first child all our relatives and acquaintances cease to address us by the use of our name and instead use the term ‘father or mother of …’ In later years, the names of grandchildren add even greater dignity.
I have seen this over and over. It is part of a general preference in many places in Africa for titles over names. During a workshop on translation, the workshop leader might come to be referred to as “our consultant”. If there is a way to call a person by a title instead of a name, my African friends will find it. And the titles don’t have to be official. They’ll invent one, like “our consultant” for the occasion.
Culture determines the emotional content of behavior. As Kapolyo writes “We feel very dignified …” It is my experience that titles often add elements of affection, belonging, and/or dignity.
The leader of a workshop isn’t just “consultant” but “our consultant”. The titles “father of” or “mother of” are very personal titles, unlike “president” or “major”.
We Americans experience titles as stuffy and formal. While Africans can and do use titles to show formal respect, they also use them in informal and family settings to show a combination of personal attachment and loving consideration that is hard to replicate in my own culture. I see newly arrived Americans (and unfortunately some who have been around for long enough that they should know better) react to African use of titles as if they carried the same formality as titles do in American culture.
In one case that became infamous in the place where it happened, an American woman reacted severely to being called “our mother” by retorting “I’m NOT your mother!”. But there, as in many places in Africa, mother, father, aunt and uncle are widely used as terms of loving inclusion and respect far beyond their strict biological meanings.
Understanding culture and living harmoniously in it is not just about understanding it in our heads. It’s about getting into the emotional content of its practices. And that sometimes mean rewiring our emotions to experience a cultural practice the way the people do, or at least making an effort to do so.