Cultural Info

Cultural Guidelines – Sub-Saharan Africa

When we travel, it’s easy to leave a negative impression by snapping a picture quickly, while the subject is not looking; by dressing scantily, offending local sensitivities; by brushing aside the feelings of local people, with the high-handed superiority of a rich Westerner.

These things are easy to do — in the click of a shutter, or flash of a dollar bill.

We can’t blend in perfectly when we travel — our mere presence as observers always alters local events at least a little bit. That said, you’ll get the most representative view of Africa if you cause as little disturbance to the local people as possible. Plus, if you try to fit in and show respect for local culture and attitudes, you can leave many positive feelings behind.

Cultural sensitivity is really a state of mind, not a checklist of acceptable behaviors, but we’ve provided a few general tips here that should help you get the most out of your experience in Africa.

Greetings

African societies are rarely as rushed as Western ones. When you first talk to people, greet them first and do so leisurely. So, for example, if you enter a bus station and want some help, do not just ask outright, “Where is the bus to …” That would be rude. Instead, you will have a better reception (and better chance of good advice) in an exchange like this:
Traveler: ‘Good afternoon.’
African: ‘Good afternoon.’
Traveler: ‘How are you?’
African: ‘I am fine, how are you?’
Traveler: ‘I am fine, thank you. (pause) Do you know where the bus to…’

For an even better reception, learn phrases in the local language. While most Africans understand English, a greeting given in an appropriate local language will be received with delight.

Another part of the normal greeting ritual is handshaking. As elsewhere, you would not normally shake a shopowner’s hand, but you would shake hands with someone to whom you are introduced. Get some practice when you arrive, as there is a gentle, three-part handshake used in Southern Africa that’s easy to learn.

Occasionally, someone may approach you in a town or city without greeting you. Instead, they may try to sell you something, or even hassle you in some way. These people have learned that foreigners aren’t used to greetings, and so have adapted their approach accordingly. An effective way to dodge their attentions is to reply to their questions with a formal greeting, and then politely, but firmly, refuse their offer. This is surprisingly effective.

Clothing

Your clothing can easily give offense. Most Africans frown upon skimpy or revealing clothing, especially when worn by women. Shorts are fine for walking safaris. Otherwise, dress conservatively and avoid short shorts, especially in the more rural areas. Respectable locals will wear long trousers (men) or long skirts (women).

Photography

Most Africans are happy to be photographed — provided you ask their permission first. Sign language is all you need: Just point at your camera, shrug your shoulders and look quizzical. The problem is these interactions produce the type of posed photographs you may not want.

If you stay around and chat for a few minutes, people will get used to your presence and stop posing. Then you’ll be able to get more natural shots, preferably using a camera with a quiet shutter.

Note that special care is needed with photography near government buildings, bridges and similar sites of strategic importance. You must ask permission before photographing any such sites, or you risk people thinking that you are a spy.

The specific examples above are general by their very nature. But wherever you find yourself, if you are polite and considerate to the Africans you meet, you will rarely encounter any cultural problems. Watch how others behave and, if you have any doubts about how you should act, ask someone quietly. They will seldom tell you outright that you are being rude, but they will usually give you good advice on how to make your behavior more acceptable.

Source: Bradt Guidebooks: Guide to Zambia by Chris McIntyre

Go to the Travel Tips page.