Amid reducing stigma, lefties still disadvantaged

By Ann Kamau
Sunday, August 9th, 2020
Amid reducing stigma, lefties still disadvantaged.
In summary
    • Many African communities equated lefthandedness with misfotune or evil,  resulting in stigma and  mistreatment of lefties.
    • Over time, the stigma has diminished, but lefties still struggle with a world designed for right-handed people.

The human hand for centuries has carried cultural baggage loaded with superstitions, myths, and realities.

In Kenya and many African cultures, there has been a history of discrimination and stigma associated with left-handedness.

The lefties have seen it all, they have been perceived to be in league with the devil, considered dirty, less intelligent than right-handers, and also lived on the danger of being accused of practicing witchcraft.

Tony Maingi, a left-handed person, says although being a leftie is still considered unnatural and peculiar, the world has unclutched from the medieval beliefs surrounding left-handed.

“For generations, cultural biases have encouraged the notion that left means bad, dirty, and unfavourable.

I have heard of tales of how lefties were beaten or scolded into being right-handed, but this is not the case anymore due to increased awareness,” says Maingi. 

As a young child, being leftie was an interesting and sometimes troubling phenomenon for Maingi.

“I was asked a lot of questions that I did not have answers to, questions such as, how did I manage to write using a left hand since it was considered the weaker hand. 

For convenience

I was the only leftie in my class and it was a bit awkward and I remember struggling to take notes while being seated in those arm contorting, wrist-twisting right-handed desks,” recalls Maingi. 

 While Maingi has never been forced to use his right hand by teachers or his parents he had to adapt and self-taught to use his right hand and foot in favour of convenience, which was a massive struggle.  

“Despite struggles, I was always proud of the fact that I was born left-handed and I wore it like a badge of honour.

As a child, I did not know many left-handed people, but today I have encountered lots of them; some are even influential people such as President Kenyatta and Obama,”  he adds.

Bias and invisibility

Does having prominent left-handed people excel in different fields mean the playing field has been levelled up? Are there lefties who currently do not feel left out?

“Fortunately, the stigma has gone and we are no longer associated with misfortunes, dirt, or considered inferior.

The world around people like me is slowly but certainly improving, but we still experience regular inconveniences and frustrations,” says Mangi. 

He adds that there is still some sort of bias and invisibility, noting that a simple task such as meeting people for the first time can be a challenge, especially those who offer a handshake from their right side. 

“You have the option of either accepting the handshake with your weaker right hand and be judged for having a poor handshake or using the left hand, which makes the situation a bit quirky,” he explains.

Right-handers rarely realise how a world aligned their way hinders left-handers.

Their lives are surrounded by ‘little’ inconveniences that right-handed people do not experience.

“People see the weird hand postures most left-handers adopt for writing, but don’t think of the problem they face. 

I only came to use the left-handed desk when I went to college and it felt heavenly not struggling to find the right posture to write.

Left-handers are overlooked and the society’s inability to cater for them is an issue that needs tackling.

We struggle with things like flushing the toilet, opening the door using a right-handed mouse, or right-handed scissors.

Most left-handed devices and products are expensive compared to the right-handed one and that’s one thing I have never understood,” laments Maingi. 

Gladys Nyachieo, a sociologist explains being left-handed implies biologically preferring using the left hand for a variety of tasks, reaching, throwing, pointing, and catching.

Extensively disapproved

“Handedness is observed quite early in human development. Tests of foetuses (using-ultrasound) show sucking their right thumbs and there are four types of handedness- left-handedness, right-handedness; mixed-handedness, and ambidexterity,” she says Dr Nyachieo.

Left-handedness was extensively disapproved of in most cultures, especially African tribes and ancient pre-Christians who equate left with bad. 

She notes there are no deep or biological reasons why left hands have traditionally disturbed some.

“The left-hand was associated with disrespect and bad manners, that’s why some children would be beaten and forced to use their right hand.

Psychiatrists have long cautioned about the harm caused by forcing left-handed children to use their right hands,” she says.

Although stigma is uncommon these days, Dr Nyachieo says right-handers have a major role to play in recognising the needs of left-handers.