The Art of Forgiveness

I found this simple story to be one of the wisest and most insightful stories that I have heard in a while.

In South Africa, (I believe in the Bahemba tribe) when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unrestricted. All work in the village comes to a complete halt.

Everyone in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused person, one at a time. Each recalls the good things that the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled is recounted in full detail. All his strengths, his good qualities, any good deeds he has performed, and all kindness that he has shown are recited carefully and at length.

This goes on for several days. Only after every man, woman, and child has had a chance to speak with the accused that the ceremony is complete. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically welcomed back into the tribe.

There's certainly a lot to learn from the Bahemba tribe about the art of forgiveness and letting go.


  1. i think it is nice in two ways:

    one, the recalcitrant dude gets a kind reverse public shaming ("you are a good lad, sonny, why be naughty then?"
    two, the others get to think and talk about his good qualities instead focusing on the recent bad incident (which only leads to anger in the affected party)

    but, it is a rather time-consuming. just imagine, i am happily reading my book (or eating my meal) and suddenly everybody has to get together to sing paeans to a badboy, stopping all their work or pleasure. what a drag.

    i would get tired of it pretty soon. there is only so much good to be said about anybody, and after little johnny has been naughty once too often, i would rather just spank him on his butt than speak about his eternal goodness one more time.

  2. I heard this story too from Syed Shariq of Stanford, I think. I recall that the version I heard is slightly different:

    1) The people do this not for every little mischief but only if there is a larger pattern over a period in a person's wrong actions

    2) They appreciate not only the good deeds of the person under the "treatment" but also of his entire ancestry. That is, they make time collectively to let the person know his larger identity in the context of the entire tribe so that he comes to know his true place and responsibility towards everyone.

    To respond to Harmanjit, it is true that it is not possible to show up for jury duty if the call comes every week. Whereas, if this style of dealing with anti-social behavior is locally ritualized (say, half a day once in a quarter) it might work.

  3. Harmanjit, indeed it would be difficult in our modern society to take on this tribe's process. What really resonated with me was the concept that discipline is not necessarily the only way. Normally people act out because they themselves are suffering some way, and we lash back and make it worst. So being the bigger person and remind them of their good qualities might be more effective in improving the behavior. Certainly not an easy thing to do. :-)

    Ragu, that version makes a lot of sense. I like that. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Anonymous3/24/2011

    I'm just imagining Harman sitting in the center of the circle... while we say our loving things... I can just imagine his expressions...

    My guess is that Guri's spirit far transcends that of the tribe, and I hope we find sensible ways to apply it without inadvertently encouraging more typical "badboys" to reoffend.

    Self-enclosed, small tribe, time to lean psychologically on the individual, seem to be key factors here

    Wish we had a world of Harmans, Ragus and Guris...

  5. Anonymous1/01/2014

    Its a very nice idea - trouble is there is no Babemba Tribe in South Africa. There is no evidence that this custom ever existed. - e