Essay from Seymour Knecht


Before heading out to do two years in Nigeria as a voluntary teacher of Maths and Physics at the Gongola Day Secondary School in Song, VSO UK organised two, two-week courses.  For volunteers like me, (Science teacher in Nigeria), the first course was teaching me to be a teacher.  The second course was some instruction in the market language of Northern Nigeria, Hausa, as well as an introduction to working is an area that was heavily influenced by Islamic cultural conventions.

One of the basic cultural lessons concentrated on teaching us not to use our left hand with local people: this could be construed as either bad manners or downright insulting.  There were useful hints like keeping your wallet in the right pocket of your trousers to try and ensure that you paid vendors with your right hand.  (A later more subtle idea from another long serving VSO teacher was to pass back a badly attempted assignment to the pupil with your left hand to emphasise additional displeasure at the lack of effort: I never did this…)

One day, after I had been in Song for about thirteen months, during a free period, I strolled across the main drag through the village to a little shop, opposite the school — a shop I often frequented to drink one of their ice-cold AfriColas.  On this occasion, the older son, who was about fifteen, had arrived back from his boarding school, fifteen kilometres distant, to ask his father for extra money to buy school texts.  I had chatted previously with this boy, but have since forgotten his name.

While I was chatting to the older brother, his younger, ten-year old brother took my order and went off to fetch my AfriCola.  I left a banknote to cover the price next to me on the bench, which the little boy picked up and went for the change.

Half a minute later, while I was chatting with the older brother, the little boy arrived back with the change.  Being involved in the conversation, I absently- mindedly put out my right hand, palm upward, to receive the coins.  At the last second, I noticed that the child was using his left hand.  Almost without thinking, I rotated my right palm to be vertical and the coins clattered to floor.

At once the little boy turned and ran into the darkness of the inner shop, where he stood near its doorway talking and gesticulating to his elder brother.  After a few seconds the elder brother turned to me and said, “My brother begs your forgiveness Mr. Seymour.  He asked me to explain that he has a tropical ulcer on his right hand and did not want the coins to touch it before he handed them to you.”

Of course, I felt like total swine when I heard this, and I asked his big brother to convey my acceptance of what I considered to a valid excuse and my apologies if I had scared him.  I picked up the coins from the floor.


Some VSOs with whom I shared this tale were hard on me saying that I should have kinder in the first place to the little brother, accepting the coins in my right hand.

However, to this day, I remain convinced that the little boy believed that I behaved entirely appropriately, as his father would have, except that the son would have been able to explain the situation in Hausa to his father.


In sub-atomic physics, the left- or right- handedness of particle interactions can be significant.  Also, it would seem, in some social interactions.

One thought on “Essay from Seymour Knecht

  1. The author’s name is “Seymour Knecht”, not “KRecht”.

Comments are closed.