Balance as a Desideratum in Social Relations
The importance of balance in Swahili social relationships is most evident in the emphasis on reciprocity. In relations between individuals who are not equal, as between a parent and a child or a senior and a junior, the senior must give advice, guidance, and, in some relationships, material assistance. In return, the junior must give respect, deference, and obedience. When each of the participants does the different but complementary things he or she is called on to do, the relationship is understood by Swahili as being a "good" one that is likely to continue and to benefit its participants and those involved with them.
When the junior participant fails to respond to the advice and assistance of the senior or fails to show respect, however, the relationship is seen as "bad," and the junior is thought to harm him or herself as well as the senior and anyone else affected by the relationship. Specifically, the senior is in danger of having the respect in which he is generally held harmed by the junior's behavior, while the youth can lose standing as an upright member of the community and come to be looked on as a sort of hoodlum. No one will respect a senior, informants told me, if he accepts being treated badly by a junior instead of ending the relationship.
The same undesirable situation can arise from the senior failing to behave with proper balance toward the junior. A senior who shows excessive respect to a junior or who treats the junior as though he or she were a senior harms both himself or herself and the junior. The failure to assume the behavior appropriate to a senior puts the senior's own overall status in doubt and endangers the junior by undermining (kumtimba , lit. "to dig [under] him/her") his or her standing and, even, physical welfare. By treating a younger person as though he were older, the senior implies the junior may die first and, through the same sort of supernatural means involved in the evil eye (see
chap. 7), may actually bring about the junior's premature death. To preserve his prestige and physical welfare, a junior in such a relationship must withdraw from it.
Nor are balancing but different contributions expected only between juniors and seniors. Among equals strict reciprocity is called for, with giving by one participant to be followed immediately by grateful taking and, later, by return giving. Whatever one gives the other, whether it is material, social, or emotional, the other should accept it gratefully and return its equivalent in the future. To fail to do so is aibu, shameful, as judged by most of the peers of those involved, just as is failure to conform to prescribed, complementary behavior in relations between juniors and seniors.
In Swahili values, then, the only lasting kind of relationship, the only one beneficial to its participants, is one where each makes distinctive contributions that are complementary to those of the other. This can be seen rather explicitly in several Swahili proverbs that recognize the inevitability of reciprocity, demand it, or bemoan its absence.
Mpaji na mpokezi, mtahamali, nani? A giver and a receiver, who is burdened [more]?
Unajua lete, jifunza twaa : You understand "give," [now] learn "take."
Ulichokula ndicho ununuacho : What you ate is that which you bought, that is, you are bound to return anything given you.
Bure ghali : Free things are costly.
Changumi chakove. Chakove sumu changu mimi : [What is] mine [is] yours. [What is] yours [is] poison for me.
This emphasis on reciprocity, on the importance and (sometimes tiresome) inevitability of participants making equivalent contributions in social relations, is clearly akin to what I have been calling "balance" in body functioning. The understanding that reciprocity is essential to rewarding social relations derives part of its force from understandings learned in early life. This learning concerns such primary issues as controlling the body and winning the approval of the parents and others on whom the infant and child depends.
The child finds that performing his bodily functions as his mother wants him to is more often followed by his mother doing something he wants her to do than is not following her wishes. More generally, the child finds that if he does what he should, those who care for him are likelier to do what they should. This learning has early manifestations, as in quite young children insisting that their playmates "be fair," give them their turn, and return favors. Children are also to be seen pointing out their own good behavior to parents as a reason for their being given what they want.
Swahili have a special term, ngoa , referring to the justified feeling of deprivation a person, particularly a child, has on failing to get what the expec-
tations in his status indicate are rightly his or hers. If parents give one child a gift and do not give a similar one to the others, the others will experience ngoa, which, unlike the hated emotion, husudi, jealousy or envy, is viewed as right and proper. Envy stems from wanting what others have to which you have no right, while ngoa is based in your right to get as much of what is due you as others in your category do. The emphasis on reciprocity and balance has an important part of its foundation in the opposed values that each person should have what is rightly his but should not have what is properly another's.