“When you're in a society where everyone is using their right hand, everyone is looking at you, ‘why are you writing with the left hand? Don’t you find it wrong to write with the left hand?’ But… it is starting to change,” says Armand Butera.
“Writing with the left hand is also acceptable, mainly because [US President Barack] Obama is also left-handed, but before, everyone was looking at you because there was something wrong with you,” he says.
Left-handedness has been celebrated in other cultures, where lists of movie stars, and even six out of seven past presidents of the United States have been left handed. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe also sign documents with their left hand.
But the stigma of “sinister”, “dirty” lefties has persisted due to societal mores in Africa.
“Throughout much of Africa, and in the Middle East and so on you get this thing—you eat your food with your right hand, and you cleanse your body and do the unclean parts with your left hand. That’s not an uncommon set of beliefs and social processes throughout Africa,” says Chris McManus, Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at the University College London and the author of the seminal book “Right Hand, Left Hand”.
“But there are other stories as well. There are places where the left-handed are regarded as magical, better, different, and so on. So you do get this both ways,” he adds.
For some, they want to promote left-handedness because they weren’t allowed to use their left hand at school. That’s the case for Bernard Bogere Ssenkubuge, the founder of Keep Left Uganda based in Lugazi, outside of Kampala, the capital.
“It is a bit taboo in Uganda to be left handed, because your mother or parents at home would always beat the hand and say, ‘the left hand doesn’t eat’. In school, the teachers will still tap the hand of a child and say, ‘you are not supposed to write with your left hand’. So it is a problem,” he says.
Bogere has been advocating for Ugandan schools to change the way left-handers are perceived, and that they may need a bit of help when first learning how to hold their pencil and write. He has petitioned the ministry of education to use his book “Evoking Left-Hand Concepts” that explains how left-handers should organize themselves in the classroom.
In South Africa, one right-handed mother could not understand how to help her left-handed son when he started school, which inspired her to run Left-Hand Learning, a Pretoria-based company that holds workshops to help educate children, their parents, and educators.
Left-handed children carry out tasks differently, such as their “fine motor skills, like cutting, writing, your pencil grip, because they push when they write, there’s a lot of issues that come with that—they hold onto their pencils very tightly, so their hand aches, their wrist aches,” says Tracy Van Der Merwe. She says that how left-handed students position themselves while writing, and how they place their paper helps to reduce their frustrations.
Dieumerci Nugwaneza, another member of the Rwanda Left-Handers Club in Kigali, says that when he was in school, the teachers never explained how to write, but made them switch their hands.
And while there are a lot of studies on handedness worldwide, McManus says there are not many done in Africa. He admits that while some promote that there is an advantage to being left-handed, the word is still out as to what that advantage actually is.
“There has to be an advantage to left-handedness, otherwise it would die out. Not because of discrimination because of left-handers, but just due to what we call ‘drift’,” he says, pointing to the fact that left-handers have existed for at least 30,000 years, but probably for a lot longer than that.
“This suggests that there has to be an advantage of left-handers being around, as they are a minority group. There’s something about them. Having said that, in the modern world we do know that there are some disadvantages to being left-handed. We know that left-handers are more likely to suffer from dyslexia and stuttering and that sort of thing, so the advantages are less clear,” he adds.
Researchers have found that language and language skills come from the left side of the brain. Left-handers use their right side of the brain. So are left-handers worse at languages? Not necessarily, says Tulya Kavaklioglu, a Phd student and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
“We focus on the language areas — these are the ones that help you understand a sentence or produce a sentence…but indeed, only amongst left-handers, we sometimes see that these are completely flipped to the right side of the brain. So in some cases, left-handers’ brains might be functioning slightly differently,” she says.
Although not many studies have been done on African handedness, there has been research on people whose origins are from Africa, says McManus.
“If you go to the big American studies and look at African Americans, you find they have exactly the same rates of left-handedness as does the rest of white America. So there is no difference there at all,” he says.
“And that suggests that whatever genetic processes are going on, they are being carried along in the same way. And that maybe we are dealing with something that is more social than inherited in some way,” adds McManus.