Each year, thousands of people visit Africa for many reasons. Some visit as tourists, experts, volunteers or for business purposes. How these people interpret their experiences in Africa sometimes serves as representing images to their friends, family, or colleagues.
I often read disappointing blogs or watch YouTube videos that don’t sit well with me.
If you are looking to visit Africa and have a wonderful time here, I have put together a few tips to help you achieve that. I left Africa as a teenager about 16 years ago and this is my first return.
I came back to use the knowledge and skills that I have gain in the West to play my part in socio-economic development. As a foreign volunteer in The Gambia, I get to meet other foreigners often, and my experiences with them prompted me to write this blog.
Before deciding to work, come for holiday, do business or whatever you wish, please read this blog before buying your air ticket for any destination in Africa.
Adjust your attitude
When I moved to Canada, it was really hard to fit in at first. I got laughed at because of the way I talk or do things. I was often told this is Canada, not Africa. Eventually, I adapted to the culture. To the point where except for the colour of my skin, my African Identity was invisible. Just recently, a foreign volunteer like me, quit the job, as she finds it hard to deal with the work structure here. She complained every time about almost everything. She often makes a comparison between Africa and Canada. Most of her complaints stem from ignorance and the expectations that things should be exactly as they are in Canada. I advised her to adjust her attitude and make good use of her new environment. I told her that she needed to see how the local people do things and adapt. I also had to let her know that this is Africa not, Canada.
I met a German man who was in the Gambia to do web training for a company. After he left, he gave a nasty review about Africa. He made all types of generalization based on his experience with the hotel and the organization he worked for. Before he left, I had a conversation with him where he complained about almost everything. He brought up issues about the heat, the hostel he was staying at, and the work culture . This man had a thick German accent which made it impossible for the students to understand him. He failed to observe the work culture and adjust his lectures accordingly. He failed to understand the students and find the best way to help each one. He failed to understand the needs of the organization. He failed to form a relationship with the organization and students to make scheduling flexible and enjoyable. His attitude was that he is the expert and he was there to do a favour. In his mind this translated to worship- everyone should respect that and ensure he lives like a king while he is here.
One thing he failed to realize is that this is Africa, not Germany. You want to help people, start by trying to understand the people. Bring yourself to their level, so they can understand you too. It is a give-and- take relationship. Learn their ways, and they will learn yours. I have realized that some of the facilities here do not provide the same utilities I use to enjoy in Canada. It took a bit of adjusting, but now I have learnt to work around with the things I need to make it easier for me.
I focus on the bigger picture and what I want to achieve and that leaves less room for me to complain. I understand if the right infrastructure were in place, and people had access to opportunities and resources to the same things, then things will be exactly the way I want them to be. So, if you see water in the bathroom instead of toilet paper, work around with your toilet paper, wipe your butt and move on. Please leave your biases and prejudices, it’s healthier for you.
Be culturally competent
I see a lot of foreign aid workers or expat in Africa. Most choose the job based on money, or title but lack the knowledge of African cultures and traditions. Many did not even have cultural sensitization training before coming to Africa. And oftentimes when there is such a program, they are taught by non-Africans, using outdated textbooks or bias and misrepresented media information.
Culturally incompetent people will fail to understand, people and culture and as such will have a hard time maneuvering in Africa. Culturally incompetent people will also see things at a surface level and argue that they are aware of the problems or issues.
I met a British lady who was in the Gambia to do an entrepreneurship training workshop for women. She had her agenda planned before coming to the country. She was disappointed when people showed up late for her workshop, there was no special meal for her vegetarian needs, and no toilet paper in the toilets. She was so frustrated that at some point she burst into tears. After calming her down, I had to ask her if she knows anything about Africa. To cover her shame, she responded that it’s her fault and that she should have lower her expectations.
Seriously, who keeps sending these types of uptight, ‘burgee’ people here. How do you expect to work effectively when you know nothing about the people and culture? Should I highlight the fact that Africa is a resilient nation? The impact of slavery, war, natural disasters, poverty and so forth, had left a lingering crippling effect that is still present in our generation. It will take some time for our infrastructures to transcend the expectations of the West.
Cultures, traditions and religion play a vital role in Africa, and these have been passed on from generation to generation. Some we aim to keep and some we will eventually get rid of, but that will be in our time. So, while you are here to enjoy what Africa has to offer, respect our culture. Embrace the new- that’s positive change
Don’t come with a saviour mentality
If you are a volunteer or expert, your role is capacity building. You are here to assist businesses, individuals and organizations reach their full potential. Your goal is to work as a team and use your knowledge and expertise to find workable solutions. You are not a SAVIOUR.
Don’t take pictures and videos of poor, ill or uneducated people to show people that you are helping the needed in Africa. We are tired of seeing those images that misrepresent the image of Africa.
I lived in one of the best cities in the world. Yet, if you go to downtown Toronto, you see homeless people sleeping in bags, and under bridges. There are white beggars at some major intersections that will stick out their hats to beg for money. I often saw mentally ill people roaming the streets. I have never seen an African person take pictures with those people to talk about issues in the West. African has its challenges, and we are well aware of them. When you have a big platform, and your viewers see those pictures, those images will become their reality. When kids waste food or refuse to eat, people in the West often say things like “There are children in Africa starving, and you are here wasting or not eating your food.” Meanwhile, any conscious person knows about food insecurity problems in the West. If you want to be a saviour, start by helping the needy in your own country. When you are here, remember you are here to work. Use the same professional principles. You will not take pictures of an individual without letting the person know why and what that image would be used for. Have the same respect when you are in Africa. Some of our people will admire you because of the obvious difference in skin tone, and the expectations that you are wealthy and lived well in the West. But you and I know about that misconception, so please don’t get carried away. The Gambia alone has many foreign aid agencies. Some have been working for the past decades, yet, the issues and problems here seem stagnant. So, who is benefiting? The CEO’s of some of these non-profit makes millions of dollars from donations yet, the issues they claim to advocate for, the people are still waiting to see results. The issue here is that these companies focus on short term solutions, that will give opportunities for media mentions and brand recognition. I see less focus on long-term solutions. Do you know the long-term effect of bringing experts will undermine our work economy? Do you know it will create the issue of dependencies and our youth and local experts will have no jobs?
Africans are brilliant people that can adapt to any situation, I believe to truly help Africa, one has to find a strategy that works for Africans. Many local people have the skills to do certain jobs, all it takes is for someone to help them realize those skills and push them in the right direction. Africans can solve African problems. There are Africans all over the world working to boost the economy in other countries. If you are here to work, bring LIGHT- the same work ethics and professionalism.
Africa is a continent with 54 countries. Lies within it is diverse wildlife, amazing landscapes, plenty of natural resources, and many different cultures, languages and traditions.
I am proud of our continents and proud of our progress. It is not a cliché when they say, there is no place like home. This is Africa!
Our ways of doing things might not fit your standard, so that is your problem.
This is Africa! where family and community are more valuable than money. This is Africa! where my skin, hair and accent will not offend certain people.
This is where I can be freely black. This is my home, so before you come to Africa, please wipe your feet at the door.
Written by :Francess Cowan