Roy Exum: The Babemba Chair

Friday, February 12, 2010 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The way I have it figured it took a pretty long time for the early explorers to get to the southern part of Africa. But when they finally got past the giraffes, the pygmies and all the other wonders of "The Dark Continent," there awaited one of the most sparkling diamonds the world has ever known.

No, I'm not talking about the glittering stones from down in Rhodesia or somewhere that set a girl's heart all aflutter but instead "The Chair of Babemba." If you thought the Bible's marvelous story of the Prodigal Son was something, wait until you hear what I just read about this remote tribe down in the south of Africa.

Too often we "civilized" human beings think we've got it all figured out, that our system of hard-fisted justice is the best and therefore the only way to deal with a member of our "tribe" when he messes up or breaks the rules. But in my mail the other day there came a story on the Babemba tribe and what happens when one of their people does a wrong.

The strongest warriors in the tribe pounce on the wretch and drag him to the center of the village. They make him sit in a chair as everybody quits what they are doing and circles the sinner. I'm not talking about just the elders or the chieftains or the tribal council. No, they bring everybody - women carrying their babies, hunters from the forest, the old people, every single soul - and stand in a huge and thick circle around the one who broke the rules.

Get the picture. It's quiet, all the villagers looking at the accused. It's probably hot, too, with bugs flying around, and maybe a monkey chattering off in the trees nearby. Literally every person in the tribe is in that circle and the reason is that when they deal with the culprit, they don't want to leave anything out.

What happens next is that every person, from those so old they can hardly walk to those so young they can hardly talk, recalls every good deed and kind act the accused has done in his whole life. That's right, the whole village takes turns. Each remembers every single instance of something nice and good and wonderful the person in the middle of the circle ever did in his whole life.

Sometimes it takes several days for everybody to finish. They each take an uninterrupted turn recalling the positive things, the noble moments, the tender parts of his whole life and - get this - they never once bring up the crime. C'mon, everybody knows why the guy is in the middle of the circle - you know how gossip and whispers spread.

This is just the opposite. One by one the guy's friends, and family, and little kids who have watched him from a distance, all tell how he carried water to a sick man or how he helped another fix his hut's roof. On and on it goes until, quite literally, nobody can remember anything else.

At that precise moment, somebody lets out a wild whoop and the party starts. They rush the guy in the chair, hugging and kissing away his tears as they celebrate welcoming him back into the tribe. Everybody celebrates - get this - not his error but the fact he's better than that. They just proved it; one transgression isn't bigger than all the good the poor guy's done in his life. They party hard, too.

Obviously anybody who sits in the chair is mortified by all the commotion, is humbled as he has to sit and hear as each person in the tribe speaks. The other thing is that everybody in the circle doesn't just give forgiveness, each one sees it and feels it and knows it. How's that for handling a problem?

I have to be honest. We don't know how they handle "repeat offenders." You suspect the next chair will be in the middle of some hungry crocodiles down in the river, but, no, we're told the "Chair of the Babemba" is so effective, so kind and just, that it is revered and why, oh why, would anybody ever do anything again to wrong a village full of people such as that.

Now, there is one other little thing I read the other day. I shouldn't bring it up, but this seems like the place. The question was asked, if you could take some lipstick and write just one word on your mirror that you would see to begin each new day, what would it be?

The suggestion was the made that word should be "you." Every once in a while, why not put yourself in the Babemba Chair? Instead of carrying around the baggage of self pity and guilt and coming up short, why not take a look at the good parts of "you" every once in a while? If it works in the most remote part of Africa, maybe - just maybe - it can kick in here, too.

royexum@aol.com


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