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The Thanks That Bind – 11/24/2013

Laura Bohannan was an anthropologist, which means she was a person who studied people. In order to study people she was interested in learning more about, she had to talk with them, work with them, live with them. One of the groups of people whom she studied were the Tiv, who are a cultural community who live in Nigeria, which is a country on the west coast of Africa.

When she first moved into a Tiv village in order to begin learning there, her neighbors started to come around to bring her small gifts – a few pieces of fruit, a couple of vegetables, a handful of peanuts, that sort of thing. She wasn’t quite sure why they were doing this, or what she was supposed to do in return, but she wrote all of their names down, and made a note of what each person had brought her. Later, some of the women of the village explained the custom to her: for the Tiv, neighbors are expected to exchange small gifts with one another. One day, someone will give you something, another day, you will give something to them. It is very important, though, not to attempt to match their gift exactly. It should not be a return of the same type and number of items – five tomatoes for five tomatoes, say. And on no account should it be a clear repayment – “Here is the cost in money of the five tomatoes you gave me last week.”

The reason for this is that so long as the value of the gift is never exactly returned, there is still a relationship there – still a connection. But if you treat it like something that needs to be paid back exactly, no more and no less, then the relationship is over and the connection is lost. It means you don’t actually want to be a neighbor, you want to remain a stranger.[i]

In this country, most of our exchanges are designed to help us remain strangers to each other. Think about a vending machine. I go up to the glass, I pick out some colorfully wrapped snack among the candy bars and salted carbohydrates. I put some money in the slot, and press buttons for “B13”. The machine whirs, the coil turns, the item falls. I scoop it up and walk away. The machine has some money, I have something to make my taste-buds feel good and my stomach feel lousy. The relationship is over – and throughout the world we inhabit, our relationships are moving ever more in this direction. On Black Friday, this Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving, millions of people are going to line up in front of huge stores all over the country and wait in line to trample in, buy stuff, and trample back out again. No deeper connection is to be made with their fellow shoppers, and certainly not with the people selling; that would slow things down enormously. The machine whirs, the coil turns – nobody gets to know anybody any better. Certainly, no one is more likely to trust anyone else because they have met under the neon lights at 5 in the morning.

What is present in the ritual among the Tiv that is missing in most of the hours of most of our days is gratitude. Gratitude exists in every gift, every mercy, every kindness that we know we cannot repay. Think about who you are most grateful to: your parents or the people who raised you or are raising you. Perhaps other people who love you come to mind: siblings, lovers, friends, your own children if you have them. The deepest relationships of our lives are built on gratitude – on knowing that we cannot return all that we have received from them, but still wanting to manifest that connection in our actions.

In a world that defines itself through buying and selling, this thing for that thing, and the balancing of accounts, it is up to us to refuse to be strangers. To make ourselves neighborly. To practice being grateful to one another – not just to the people we already know, but to as many people as we can possibly reach on this impossibly interconnected planet. That’s what our Simple Gifts project, and this year’s Guest at Your Table program are about: manifesting our gratitude for the lives we have in the way we treat others.

[i] As recounted in Tiv Economy, coauthored with her husband Paul Bohannan, 1968.


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