(To Know Before You Travel to Africa)
In Africa, actions speak louder than words, especially if there is a barrier
In an effort to contextualize and be mindful of a complex mindset and worldview,
here are a few African cultural values to be aware of when traveling in Africa!
1. Greeting – Hello and a Handshake
Greeting people in Africa is one of the most important things you can do.
A quick “hello,” paired with a handshake is a sufficient way to make a
positive first impression with anyone.
2. Show Respect to Elders
African cultural values are based on a foundation of the past and present,
a leading reason why elders are so well respected. Always acknowledge an
elder, let them ask questions, and during mealtime elders should be served
3. Pointing At Things
Pointing at something or someone with the index finger is usually considered
rude or just straight offensive – it’s not something you want to do. Different
ethnic groups have different ways of pointing, but the method I usually employ
is poking my chin in the right direction and widening my eyes.
4. Overhand Motion Calling
Avoid motioning to call a person with an upwards palm. The preferred method is
to call someone over with the palm faced down and pulling the fingers inwards.
5. Sole of the Foot
Just like in many cultures around the world, the very bottom of your foot is the
very dirtiest part of your body. Try not to directly point your foot sole towards
6. Eat with the Right Hand
You might have heard this before, the right hand is for eating food and the left
hand is reserved for the unsanitary task of what happens afterward. Whatever you
do, don’t touch African food with your left hand!
7. Hissing and Kissing Sounds
To call the attention of someone is often performed with a hissing or loud smack of
the lips. If you are not expecting it, the sounds might come as a surprise, but it’s
totally acceptable and very common.
8. Silence is an African Value
Don’t be alarmed or nervous with spans of silence during African conversation. When
there’s something to be said, it will be said; when there’s nothing to be said, silence
is perfectly fine. There’s no need to feel uneasy during a period of silence in Africa,
take the time just to enjoy the presence of others.
9. Time – A Little Less Important
Despite the use of clocks to tell “what time it is,” African clocks work differently;
things fall into place as they unfold. An African worldview does not focus far into
the future, but dwells more on past events and whatever is happening currently.
Future scheduled times can’t be rushed and thinking so will only make one more and
10. Use Flexibility
Africa will teach you to be flexible. Closely relating to how future-time is of less
importance, schedules aren’t always at the forefront of lifestyle. If a plan gets
shut down or changes drastically, there’s not always something you can do besides
accept it and continue with a positive attitude.
11. Do NOT Publicly Show Anger,
Frustration, or Impatience
Though circumstances have potential to become frustrating, it’s highly important to
NOT publicly display any sort of negative feeling in public. Africans have incredible
self control, being careful not to offend or shame anyone in public.
12. Positive Communication
Positive communication is a key African cultural value. Along with not displaying public
negativity there are countless ways to express “good,” or “ok.” Don’t immediately get
into a discussion about a hardship or struggle, these topics can be gradually be brought
13. Relationships Matter
With future-time a little less important, current time is of extreme value. Meeting people
and spending time with others to develop lasting relationships is an aspect of African
culture that is truly cherished.
14. Don’t Talk Too Much During a Meal
Simple small talk is permissible, but don’t try to talk too much business or seriousness
during a meal. Serious issues are handled after the meal.
15. Receive a Gift With Both Hands
If someone graciously gives you a gift, a non-verbal way to show extreme thankfulness is
to accept it with both hands outstretched.
16. The Un-Stated – “Sorry We’re Out”
There will inevitably be a circumstance in Africa where you go to a restaurant, order
a dish, and a totally different dish is served to you – no questions asked. You will
naturally complain, saying “this is not the dish I ordered.” The waiter will shyly
back away and simply tell you that what you ordered was not available. It can be a bit
frustrating to say the least (remember #10, 11, and 12, and that African flexibility!).
17. Personal Space
It might seem odd (or even drive you crazy) when you are the only person on an empty bus
and another person gets on and sits down right next to you. Imagine growing up in a single
room with 10 people living together, or living with a clan of extended family; your idea
of personal space might be a little different thinking in African terms.
In the end, remember that Africans are extremely gracious and caring people, ready to go
the extra mile to respect and service others. Hopefully if we can understand a bit of
African cultural values when we travel to Africa, we can make a positive impression;
showing respect that will leave lasting memories!
17 African Cultural Values (To Know Before You Travel to Africa)
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