In the Shade of the Palaver Tree

By Sopova, Jasmina | UNESCO Courier, May 1999 | Go to article overview

In the Shade of the Palaver Tree


Sopova, Jasmina, UNESCO Courier


The palaver is a traditional African institution of debate and consensus whose democratic potential has been overshadowed by modern political systems

In the early 17th century, a Portuguese Catholic missionary, Father Mariano, made strenuous efforts to convert the people of the small kingdom of Sahadia, on the west coast of Madagascar, north of modern-day Morondava. Despite lengthy expeditions to the area, however, he did not succeed.

One of the main reasons for his failure, he noted in a letter, was the

kingdom's political system. "If the king at least had some authority," he wrote, "we could have hoped for some success. But the king only controls the area around his home town, he is poor and not feared, and his subjects do as they please without his daring to complain. In fact, the people form a kind of republic. Whenever a big local issue comes up, everyone gathers to discuss it in a council."

Father Mariano was talking about the fokonolona, an ancient tradition which has to some extent survived in Madagascar to this day (see the UNESCO Courier, March 1999). But it is also found elsewhere in Africa, where it is known as the palaver.

A key socio-political institution of pre-colonial Africa, the palaver is an assembly where a variety of issues are freely debated and important decisions concerning the community are taken. Its purpose is to resolve latent and overt conflicts in certain highly specific situations. The participants usually gather under a "palaver tree" where everyone has the right to speak and air their grievances or those of their group. A complainant may opt to be represented by a griot (a poet, storyteller and traditional singer), or some other spokesman.

The status of women in these assemblies, where the elders try to reach a consensus, varies from region to region. Among some peoples, women actively take part in the decision-making. Among others, they settle for advising their menfolk outside the assemblies.

One form of the palaver is the Ethiopian debo, a mutual aid system where the men of the community get together to help a neighbour (the aba debo, "father of the debo") carry out a major task. The group chooses a leader, who in turn designates a walle to do the talking. He has to be eloquent and have a good voice because his job is to lead the singing while the work is being done and provide words of encouragement in particularly arduous moments. He also defends the interests of the workers before the aba debo and reports back to them.

Wider participation by women

Palavers operate in various ways, e.g. to deliberate about a marriage or a sale, settle a dispute, look at the circumstances of a crime and then decide how to find and punish the culprit. …

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