"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


your first time in Africa

In getting ready for tonight's talk, I've been thinking a lot about how to portray the Congo in all its dimensions, not just as a place of great suffering and sadness, but also as a place of laughter and joy and wisdom about life that we just don't have here in the West.

There's an unintentional arrogance in so many first-time travelers to Africa that drives me up the wall. I get so tired of reading about mission trips that purport to "bring Jesus to Africa" or study-abroad students who want to "save Africans" from poverty and despair. I roll my eyes at people who think their two expensive weeks in "Africa" (and it's always "Africa," not the actual country someone is visiting) will change the continent's destiny.

News flash, kids: Jesus has been in Africa a lot longer than you'll be there, and those Africans you want to save will be working hard to provide for their families long after all of us are gone. The money you're spending on a two-week trip could have fed ten families for a year.

Also, Africa is not a country.

My sister reminds me that I was once a first-timer too, that I first spent a semester in one of what we jokingly refer to as "starter countries," that I didn't have a clue (see above). She's right. I should be more forgiving, and more open to helping people who want to learn more about a beautiful place. And I should remember that I needed to go and see, and that I needed to be humbled and changed by those whose faith is stronger than mine will ever be.

So in an attempt to be more gracious in this regard, I thought maybe I'd try to share some of the things I've learned in and from the continent over the years, in hopes that doing so might help others who are headed that way for the first time. If you've spent time in "Africa" and can think of anything else, please mention it in the comments and I'll add it to the list.

1. Ask, "How are you?" of everyone you meet. Always. First. And shake hands.
2. Long floral skirts look silly. If you wouldn't wear something at home, don't wear it in Africa. On the flip side, don't wear short skirts. You'll scandalize the neighborhood. Africans tend to be conservative in dress. A skirt that's just longer than knee-length is fine. Unless you are on safari, don't wear shorts, even if it's 90 degrees and humid. Only little boys wear shorts.
3. Clean up. Even the poorest Congolese are usually well-pressed and neatly dressed. It's a cultural value, and showing up looking like a slob is offensive. Would you wear a wrinkled t-shirt and safari pants to a formal Sunday service in the States? Then why would you do so in Africa?
4. You will not save Africa. Accept this now.
5. You will not even begin to understand Africa.
6. Africa (say it with me) is not a country.
7. Loosen up. Being an hour late to church is no big deal. Even if you're the preacher. Eventually, it will happen. If it doesn't happen, it's no big deal.
8. Ix-nay on the anny-fak-pay.
9. You can buy toothpaste in Africa. You can also buy diet Sprite, bug spray, and sunsceen. Every capital city (which you are almost certainly flying through) has at least one store that caters to the fickle desires of expatriates. Don't overpack.
10. Buy gifts locally. It's much better to help the local economy by buying soccer balls, household items, medications, and clothes once you get there than to bring overstuffed suitcases full of stuff. Arts and crafts supplies are the one thing I can think of that's justifiable to bring (unless you're going to South Africa, which is like Europe. You can buy everything in South Africa.)
11. God is bigger than the way we do Christianity in the American South and Midwest. Respect what local pastors and church leaders tell you, and don't assume you know more than they do.
12. It's rude to refuse an invitation. Unthinkable, really. If someone offers you somethinkg you accept. Period. Drink the tea. Eat the mystery meat. Sit and talk.
13. When evangelizing, remember #12.
14. Never go anywhere without drinking water, toilet paper, and pepto bismol.
15. Don't drink water that isn't bottled or from a filtration system. Again, South Africa (in the cities) is an exception.
16. Nothing for sale in the crafts market is authentic, antique, or terribly valuable. If it's for sale to you, it's mass-produced for tourists. This doesn't mean you can't find something beautiful. Offer 1/3 of what they ask, and don't enter into negotiations unless you plan to buy. Beginnign negotiations is almost tantamount to signing a contract.
17. Buy stuff made by orphans, women, and refugees if possible. There are shops in most countries. You can't bargain there, but you'll have the knowledge that you're helping those who are really in need. And their products are usually of significantly higher quality.
18. Only dance if you are invited to dance. If you are invited to dance, see #12.
19. Get over your personal space issues. If you're lucky, you'll hold someone else's child for the duration of that supposedly 12-hour bus ride. If you're unlucky, you'll hold someone else's chicken.
20. It gets cold in Africa, especially if you are going to the highlands. Find out beforehand what the weather will be like. Bring a fleece if necessary.
21. Even if it isn't hot, you're closer to the Equator. Wear sunscreen. With a high SPF. Religiously. And drink lots of water.
22. Ignore Lonely Planet whenever possible. They're paranoid. Bradt guides are usually good.
23. You don't need that much stuff. Seriously. Unpack, get rid of 1/2 of it, and take twice the cash you think you'll need. Preferably in crisp, post-2001 series dollars. Traveler's checks are useless in most of Africa.
24. Yes, the roads are bumpy and people cross in front of your moving vehicle without looking.
25. Stay hydrated.
26. If you get sick, it's better to get it out of your system than to stop it up. Think Pepto, not Immodium. Exception to this rule: long bus rides.
27. If you get dehydrated, mix a spoonful of salt into a Fanta. It works as well as rehydration salts and is significantly less expensive. Do not, under any circumstances, stay dehydrated. Nothing good comes from dehydration.
28. Africa always wins. The sooner you accept this, the better off you'll be.
29. People will be generous with you. Be generous with them.
30. Don't promise things you can't or won't deliver. It's cruel to give a child hope for a scholarship if you can't provide it. It's wrong to promise to raise funds or awareness if you won't do either.
31. The best Indian food in the world is at Khana Kazana in Kampala. Zig Zag in Livingstone makes the yummiest hot chocolate in southern Africa. The best pizza in central Africa is at the New Cactus in Kigali. Java House in Nairobi has honest-to-goodness quesadillas. Skip the sour cream. The Congolese maek the best, most flavorful greens on the continent. Order the tsombe.
32. If you're doing Cape-to-Cairo, be a man and don't skip Sudan. Get a visa from the SPLM in Nairobi and fly into the South. You can get to Juba from Lokichogo.
33. Ask before you take pictures. If they say no, there's a reason. Better to miss having a picture of the airport/train station/Parliament than to spend a night in jail and lose your camera for good. Never take pictures of the above-mentioned public facilities.
34. Poverty is reality. You can't help everyone, but you can help someone. How much did you spend to get here? Yeah, that's what I thought. You can afford to give some money away.
35. You are not "one with Africa."
36. Use your right hand. To exchange money or goods, to eat, to shake hands. Always. Only.
37. It's better to empower and employ. There are people in the place you are visiting who know how to build churches/orphanages/schools. You'd help the community much more by financing a building than by actually building it yourselves. Teach skills if necessary, but let partnerships actually be partnerships, and help the community to maintain self-sufficiency.
38. Most importantly, stop being afraid. Africa is a wonderful place. The vast majority of people are welcoming and kind. Behave as you would anywhere else (would you count your money on the street in New York?), relax, and don't worry so much.

Any other ideas?

Update: Here's part two, with TIA reader ideas.


Blogger William Deed said...

I've only been to a handful of countries in Africa and I've noticed that a few of your points only apply to certain countries. I would maybe break it down, make your audience aware that Africa is a mix of cultures -even each country, like Congo, can be a mix of many different cultures with different customs.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 5:16:00 AM

Blogger allhokie said...

Not everyone sits to go to the bathroom. Learn to squat. Holding it until you get to a pedestal toilet will only make you sick.

Africa is a wonderful place. Enjoy it and let Africa and Africans teach you.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 7:48:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, y'all. William, where am I wrong? I've been to a lot of places in Africa, but they are all in the eastern/central/southern parts of the continent.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 10:42:00 AM

Blogger Katherine said...

Great post! I was blessed to be able to travel the world last year during missionary work. During our travels, we spent time in Egypt, Kenya (mainly Kibera) and many different parts of South Africa.

These are my two cents:

-I laughed aloud at number eight! Hilarious!

-Praise God for Java House in Nairobi.

-To number fourteen I would add ciprofalaxin. The miracle drug. Don't travel without your cipro.

-Prepare to come home and be stunned by how short church seems!

-These types of lists (while interesting and true) can make us think it's just the cultures we visit that are so offendable. It didn't fully hit me until Kenya (9 months into my travel) just how sensitive we Americans can be about certain things as well. For example... we are quite sensitive on topics such as weight and skin color, which are not as taboo in many other countries. Be prepared for unexpected conversations!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 11:10:00 AM

Blogger euphrony said...

My dad has spent around a month every year in Ghana for missions for the past five years. What I have learned from him:

1) Your comment on personal space (#19) is true.

2) Gray hair (which my dad has in abundance) is highly respected.

3) When traveling from Acra to destinations 12 hours remote, with 20 people in a 15 passenger van, my dad gets a whole row in the van to himself. The Ghanaians are insulted if he suggests he can share some of the room.

4) Breastfeeding in public is only scandalous in the West. I don't think my dad's preached or attended a church service where a woman was not breastfeeding in the pews.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 12:28:00 PM

Blogger Amy said...

How fascinating! I know what you mean about the first time travellers or even the assumptions of those who don't travel. I often have to remind myself that any knowledge and experience I have is a gift from God to be shared much like your list. I've never been to any country in Africa, so I have nothing to add. How many countries in Africa have you been to?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 12:34:00 PM

Blogger Tauratinzwe said...

Excellent post!! Should be required reading of anyone "going on mission" to Africa.

Had to write a letter to the editor of local Arkansas paper after a pastor was reported as having received an honour from "the president of Africa" [unnamed].

Also had an African American friend confess he was shocked to learn that God was not an American.

I would add one other thing to the list. Anyone who drinks the water of Africa has to go back. (Africa becomes a part of you that you never want to loose.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 1:10:00 PM

Anonymous Sister said...

You forgot the yes/no question rule and being told what you want to hear because it's polite and not considered dishonest as we westerners think it is.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 2:22:00 PM

Blogger William Deed said...

In no way are you wrong, I'm just a little unsure of anything that can be applied to a whole continent.

For example the frequency of shaking hands can depend on the person and the setting. In rural Eastern Congo, I would shake more than a 100 hands a day, at least. Here in Nairobi I talk to far more people but only shake a couple.

The right hand rule I also only found in Northern Cameroon. Not in Eastern Congo, Kampala or Nairobi.

I drink tap water in Nairobi, and just last weekend here a friend and I found antique beads from Benin at a crafts market. And I think value of crafts depends on person and context, many goods you find in these stalls you can find in England selling at 20, 30 times the price, and they do sell at this price.

Number 18 I've never heard of before, and Euphrony, I am mocked for my grey hair -not respected!

I highly agree with Number 30. There's nothing more painful than watching someone freshly arriving in a country and promising to help in many ways and then forgetting all about it.

Anyways, I didn't want to pick hairs, I'm just always a bit wary of statements that seem to cover whole continents. One of the things I noticed when living in the States is that 'American' means different things to different people and that the culture can vary greatly not only from state to state, but also within the people living in those states.

There are interesting surprises that I've enjoyed recently and just didn't expect. For example finding households in Eastern Congo where, as you know, the general position of women in Congolese society can be poorly considered, yet you can find certain households where the women are in charge of everything; family, money, husband etc.

Oh, and number 6 -tell me you're kidding, people don't actually think this do they?

Thursday, November 08, 2007 1:55:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for your comments, William. You're absolutely right that it's not a great idea to make blanket statements about 54 countries and thousands of cultures. What I was going for is more things I've noticed to be fairly common in the places I've been, as well as giving tips to keep visiting Americans from making fools of themselves.

Of course, experiences vary. When I lived in Nairobi nine years ago, I shook hands all day long, and the tap water there still makes me ill. And my experience in eastern DRC and elsewhere is that people tend to use their right hands to serve food, exchange money, etc.

And, yes, sadly, I have been asked whether I speak "African." Anyway, thanks again for your comments and perspective.

Thursday, November 08, 2007 10:13:00 AM

Blogger tony sheng said...

Loved that post. I was in Cameroon in the summer of 2006 with a team of students and all of us loved it. An amazing experience with the most gracious of people. Indeed, stop being afraid.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 9:09:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough most of these apply to Latin America as well. I would add "Don't be so LOUD in public" and "No, they won't understand English the louder you speak!"
I especially LOVE #28: "Africa always wins." as well as #35: "You are not one with Africa."

Peace to you,
Greg & Jan Millsaps
Monterrey, Mexico

Monday, July 21, 2008 10:37:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

haha, this made me laugh and nod in agreement at once. thanks!
regards, Jikke (from Amsterdam)

Monday, May 18, 2009 10:44:00 AM


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