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A palaver hut.

A palaver hut.

I had never heard the word “palaver” before I came to Liberia. I heard someone refer to a “palaver hut,” which I soon learned is a traditional circular hut made from clay and bamboo or wood, with a thatched roof.  In West African villages, it is traditionally where visitors are received. The location of the hut can be selected by the village elder, chief, or spiritual elder, and the villagers work together to construct the hut. And in the palaver hut, people palaver…

“Palaver” means a prolonged discussion or conference.  Traditionally, villagers gathered in the palaver hut to discuss an issue until it was resolved. The dictionary also defines palaver as “a long parley, especially one between primitive natives and European traders, explorers, colonial officials, etc.”  In fact, it seems that this is the original meaning of the word.

I looked into the etymology of palaver and, while it is widely used in Liberia and West Africa, it is not a Liberian or even an African word.  “Palavra” means word in modern Portuguese and in early 18th century Portuguese it also meant talk or discussion.  Early Portuguese traders on the West African coast (c. 1720-1730) used it to describe their negotiations or discussion with natives.

It was adopted by various West African pidgin languages to more broadly mean a discussion, argument, dispute, negotiation, etc.  The place where such disputes were settled – the village hut – became known as the palaver hut.

About Home Strange Home

I first left the US in 1999, when I was 18 years old. Since then, I’ve spent 13 years living abroad - 3 in Canada, 7 in Europe, and 3 in Africa. Now I've finally returned to the US on a one-way plane ticket. I arrived home in late January 2014 and set foot in the US for the first time in nearly 2.5 years. In Home Strange Home, I blog about the ups and downs of my re-acculturation experience.

2 responses to “Palaver

  1. Susie Horne ⋅

    Hey Katie, I’m surprised you never heard me use palaver, commonly used by my family from the west country in the UK rather than West Africa. A typical phrase would be “what a palaver!” referring to almost anything that took a long time, involved lots of people, and was generally a bit frustrating…

    • Liberiana ⋅

      Yes, I’ve heard that British people use it, too! Funny how small the world is 🙂 I hope all is well in Sutton.

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