Monday, March 27, 2006

Taboos - Cultural lessons - for you to look at

I thought this was an interesting report out of Africa. It has to deal with a census now being conducted, and the cultural taboos that one might encounter abroad. It is a good learning experience to look at different cultures to see how these obstacles are dealt with and how cultural taboos affect a country or nation or region of the world.

Citation: By MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press Writer
From the Yahoo news wire 2:46 a.m. est 3-27-06

Job not easy for Nigerian Census Takers

ABUJA, Nigeria - It's considered bad luck to ask a Yoruba how many children the family has. Asking a herdsman about his cows or camels likely will get you shown the door. And what is a male census worker to do when Muslim women are home alone?

Nearly a million census officials are trying to count heads in Africa's most populous nation, estimated to number anywhere from 120 million to 160 million. The sprawling country has a plethora of social and other taboos, and its 250 tribes speak as many languages — just some of the obstacles that have stymied previous attempts at an accurate count.

That's not to mention the logistical challenges of simply reaching citizens.

Census workers are clambering up offshore oil rigs, punting down rivers in dugout canoes and heading into the desert on horses and snorting camels, Samu'ila Danko Makama, chairman of the National Population Commission, said in an interview.

One census-taker is missing and feared drowned after a canoe capsized Wednesday.

The first door-to-door census in 15 years began Tuesday and is scheduled to end Saturday. Makama told reporters Friday that census takers have covered 70 percent of the country.

But Lagos state Gov. Bola Tinubu said there was an urgent need to extend the counting period because "it is clear that it is no longer possible to have a comprehensive and credible headcount in the nation" by Saturday.

In the main city of Lagos, census coordinator Foluke Adebayo said workers had been checking under highway bridges until 5 a.m. Friday and were far from completing even a count of the destitute.

"We did not envisage the number of homeless we encountered on Lagos Island," she said.

Makama said census workers have instructions to be polite and sensitive to cultural issues once they arrive at their destinations. The workers are all posted outside their home states to try to avoid manipulation of the count. Government resources are allotted according to the census figures, which has prompted some past attempts to inflate the population count.

Workers must pick their way through numerous questions, trying not to give offense.

In a Yoruba household, for example, it's considered bad luck to ask how many children there are, Makama said. In the mainly Muslim north, men in religious households will not allow women alone to answer the door to male census workers, meaning the women will not be counted.

Makama explained that while it was taboo to ask the size of a man's herd in some societies, other factors may also be at play.

"The pastoralists, if you ask them about the number of their cattle they are unlikely to cooperate with census officials because they will immediately associate it with taxation."

For that reason, Nigerians are not being asked how much they earn.

And then there are all the suspicions about the government's intention in holding the census as supporters of President Olusegun Obasanjo campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for a third term next year.

Population is one of the factors that determines the allotment of oil riches and the drawing of local jurisdictions. As a result, a census can spark violence between competing interest groups.

Since the census began, at least 15 people have been killed in clashes in the south — five in fighting between two ethnic groups contesting ownership of a village and 10 in a shootout with police. Acid and machete attacks on census officials have been blamed on separatists among the Igbo tribe in southeast Nigeria.

In a bid to diffuse tensions, the government decided not to ask people their religion.

"It's sensitive in that there's the fear that if we say Christians are more than Muslims in number, very likely Muslims will not accept it (the census) and vice versa," Makama said.

Not asking the question also sparked protests. The Christian Association of Nigeria, a group believed to represent about half the nation, has long charged that the number of Muslims had been inflated in all five counts since 1952.

All except the first were held under Muslim military dictators who have governed Nigeria almost exclusively until the 1999 election of Obasanjo, a southern Christian and former military strongman who is only the second democratically elected leader.

The first census, conducted by British colonizers, was considered the least problematic but an undercount because of logistical difficulties reaching remote areas, political tensions in southeastern Nigeria and fears it was connected to taxation.


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