I had just been in Nigeria for a month and a half and was working with a client on a tattoo for her sister-in-law.
She had been inspired by the walling cities of Africa, where people lived in enclosed enclaves and were often surrounded by walls.
But I didn’t know much about the wall culture.
And so, as we were talking about it, I asked her: “Where did the term ‘wall’ come from?”
The tattoo artist I had been working with responded, “The term ‘walled’ comes from the fact that the walls were made to be there, so that when they fell down they wouldn’t fall down on you.”
I was fascinated, and thought: “That sounds like a cool idea.
I could make a tattoo of a wall, and I’d be making a walled culture.
It would be cool!”
I did the research.
I was told that there were about 400 million people living in the world’s walled enclaves, and most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.
I called around for references to the word wall and was surprised to learn that there was no official word for the concept.
I thought, “Why does this exist?”
But then I heard from a professor at Duke University, who told me about an old African proverb that had a slightly different meaning: “When a man is walled, he is a king.”
The word “wall” has a deep history in African culture.
In the 1800s, a popular joke was that if a person was walled up in a village, they were doomed to wander aimlessly.
And in the late 1700s, the phrase “walled-up man” referred to a man who was walling himself up.
And later, when African countries adopted a more urbanized population, walled-ups became the norm.
And, in recent years, as the wall is shrinking, the term “walled-up” became an adjective used to describe a person who was not walled off.
In some parts of Africa—particularly the Central African Republic and parts of southern Africa—people use the term as an insult.
But in other places, including parts of West Africa, “wall-capped” or “walling” have become an expression of pride, as a way to express pride in being a “wall”.
I’m not sure where the word came from, but I think it’s very interesting that a word that has been around for so long has now been given an entirely new meaning.