During your stay in Africa you will be confronted with cultural differences. Getting acquainted with some local customs before your departure will ease communications with the local population once you are in Africa. For this reason, we have listed some aspects of African’s culture. Of coarse the diversity in cultures within Africa is very big; but the things we discuss here are generelly comon in both Ghana, Cameroon and Malawi.
Making friends with people you like (especially those of the same gender and age group) will prove to be very pleasant and useful. African friends will be there for you if you feel lonely and they can explain and clarify cultural differences to you. They can offer you an introduction to their culture and to cultural events, such as weddings, funerals, et cetera. Friendships between girls and boys are less comon in Africa. If you get very close to somebody of the other seks, the person would probably expect a relationship. Physical contact between people of the same seks however are more common then in Europe. Don’t be surprised if somebody takes your hand or wipe some dirt of your face.
It is very important to respect people who are older than you and to follow their instructions. On the other hand, you can feel free to ask younger children to do something for you (usually they will offer to do this themselves). Age-based hierarchy is an important African value. You must obey older family members and in turn they will help you in times of need. Furthermore, you are always welcome to ask acquaintances older than you for advice. They can also mediate in disputes with others or in case you need something from someone. To pay your respects to an elder or to an otherwise respectable person you must kneel.
It is very important to greet other people extensively before getting down to business. Greetings include asking the other person about his well-being and that of his family. Skipping the extensive greeting ceremony will be considered rude. By greeting a stranger you will clear the atmosphere and provoke a wide smile, especially when you have familiarized yourself with greetings in the local language. You will be surprised how rewarding it is to ask someone about his well-being and that of his family. It is the key to the African’s heart and will turn even a simple encounter (for instance with a market lady) into a great experience.
It will be greatly appreciated if you visit acquaintances who are ill. In general, it is very common to regularly visit people you know. Something that may seem odd to foreigners is that you may decide to stay only for a short time. You visit, you greet and then you leave. Greetings and regular visits are crucial to establish good relationships: they form an important part of the African culture and a good network also works as an insurence in times of emergency.
Customs for visits
Whenever you visit someone, you must take off your shoes or slippers before you enter their house, for it is impolite to enter a house with your shoes or slippers on. All visitors are offered water on entering the house. This custom is very logical, if you consider that the climate is very hot and people tend to walk long distances. It is customary to hand over a small gift when you visit respected persons, such as a chief or a traditional healer. A typical gift consists of some Kola nuts or the equivalent in money.
Dealing with personal possesions
In Africa, it is normal to ask other people to give you an item that you need or would like to own. You will probably have regular encounters with people who ask you for your earrings, shoes or MP3 player. Since this is very uncommon in our culture you may not know how to react to these direct questions. If you refuse the request because you own only one such item, this is generally accepted. Many Africans will give their relatives or friends or, occasionally, a poor person whatever they ask for if they have enough. You can also avoid a direct answer by kindly saying “maybe later”. It rarely happens that someone returns the next day to ask again for the item. A third possibility is to explain kindly why you cannot miss the item. As long as you remain calm and friendly the refusal will be accepted. However, people will not understand if you are rude to them or ignore them; the latter is a common Western response. You may learn the art of giving, as long as you give something to someone you like and because you want to, not because you feel obliged to. In return, you may ask your friend for things: true friendship is based on easily sharing your possessions. However, it is not necessary to give these things to complete strangers, just because they ask you to.
To most indigenous Africans, it is common to visit and greet your acquaintances and to give money or goods to friends who need them; there is less awareness of what is yours or mine. This sharing so easily may be the reason why Africans do not see the point of saving money: why save money, if you can lose it to someone else in a second? However, this may lead to problems, if unexpectedly there are high expenses, for example a hospital bill. This is usually resolved by relying on your carefully constructed social network. Whenever a large sum of money is needed, it is raised by your friends, or collected from the people that you gave money to in the past. Thus, your social network serves as a social insurance system. This is why it is so important to be known and liked by many people. Also, it is one of the reasons why your reputation is so important and why people put so much effort into being respected or liked by others. Consequently, honesty and sincerity – two very important qualities in Western cultures – are not always viewed very positively. Instead, respect, politeness and helping other people are highly valued.
In Western culture we usually ask a lot of questions: this is often out of a need of control. Questions poses out of a sincere curiosity are welcome to much of the Africans you will meet. But too much curiosity is considered rude when the questions are made out of insecurity or because you are critical. Asking this kind of questions means you don’t trust the person or you want to criticize them. If you ask people too much about how things are organized or about where they have been, they may get irritated. Try to develop a trust in people without the need to know exactly how and when things are organised.
You probably know that Africans are not as bound to time as we are. Not many Africans will announce visits or turn up for a meeting on the agreed time – if a time was agreed on at all. You will regularly find yourself waiting for the people you agreed to meet. When confronted with their absence, their reaction will probably one of surprise. Rain, for example, is a legitimate reason for postponing or cancelling a meeting. “Africans don’t go outside when it rains”. To arm yourself against getting annoyed, you will have to develop patience. In Africa, a lot of time is spent waiting. Apparently Africans understand that Westerners need to develop patience to adapt to the African way of life. Patience is a highly respected trait in African culture; patient people are wise and will achieve much, because they take the time to get there. Impatient people are looked down on; their behaviour is regarded as childish. This is why it is pointless to lose your temper when things go more slowly than you want them to: in reaction, people tend to move even more slowly.
In a lot of regions only the right hand is used for eating. Africans wash their backsides with their left hand. Hence it is very impolite to use this hand. Everything is passed on with the right hand only. If you cannot avoid using your left hand, for example if you are carrying something heavy in your right hand, you will say “excuse left”.
Food is very important in Africa. When you pass people who are having a meal, you will hear them say “you’re invited”. Africans, especially women, are very happy when you appreciate what they have cooked for you. You will make them very happy by taking a meal with them (even if it is only a few bites) and by telling them you like it. Don’t smell at the food, because this is considered very rude in Africa. When you are staying with a host family, don’t eat out of the house too often, because they will think their food is not good enough for you. However, it is polite not to finish your whole plate; in this way your host mother will know she has cooked enough food. Often the guests and the men will take their food first and the women and children will take what is left. Mostly, guests will be served in a separate room where they can eat alone without being disturbed by others; this is a sign of respect. It is a sign of friendship to eat out of the same bowl with your friend.
The person who invites someone else to go out for a drink or for something to eat, is paying for both of them. So if you invite a African friend for a drink with you, he/she will expect you to pay. When you know how little most Africans earn, you will realise that for most Africans it is impossible to go for a drink in a bar, or for something to eat in a restaurant or to travel for pleasure. They will appreciate it if you invite (a part of) your host family to go for a drink once in a while.
Africans tend to dress up for visits or trips into town. The traditional backpacker outfit is not very well received by Africans. If you are rich – and as a Westerner you are – it shows a lack of respect if you dress in worn-out clothes. It is relatively cheap and easy to have your clothes made from local fabrics. Apart from dressing nicely, it is important to dress properly. Bare thighs or hips are taboo. Women wear shorts underneath their skirts to ensure these parts are covered. A man in shorts will raise eyebrows with the locals, as these are considered to be underwear. When seated, make sure not to spread or cross your legs. On the other hand, bare chests are more accepted than they are over here. It is not unusual to see bare-breasted women in the villages. All girls wear earrings to show they are real women.
Join in with daily activities
We recommend that, right from the start, you help the people in your compound with their daily chores. They will tell you to rest and stop helping, but it pays to insist and pretend to be angry or disappointed if you are not allowed to help. In the end, people will call on you to join them in the chores they know you like to assist them in. Examples of such chores are: fetching water, sweeping the floor, doing the laundry, cooking, picking fruit and searching wood in the forest, carrying babies, helping to build new houses, sowing peanuts, helping women to sell their products on the market, and much more. By joining in these daily chores you will be rewarded with a sense of belonging and by pleasant interactions (verbal or non-verbal) with the locals.