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Cultural overview: Sub-Saharan Africa Cultural overview: Sub-Saharan Africa
by Joseph Gatt
2019-08-27 07:10:41
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Every country, every individual are completely different. In some cases, you can have two neighboring villages with completely different cultures and mindsets. Sweeping generalities on sub-Saharan African culture.


Two things. First, in most sub-Saharan African countries, people don't have a sense of personal property. That is if you invite them home, they can stay at your place indefinitely, and not show the slightest hint that they are about to leave. If you give them your car, they will use it for both professional and personal purposes. Many instances of company drivers using the company car as a private taxi. If you're not careful enough, they could start selling the property you allow them to use. If you're lucky, they might sell your books or furniture. If you're unlucky, they can put your house up for sale and try to collect money. 

subsah01_400Second, sub-Saharan Africans tend to be very vague and will rarely make detailed statements. If you ask them for directions they will be vague. If you ask them what the rules are or the law is, they can be very vague. If you ask them for reports on anything, they will be vague.


In English-speaking Africa English tends to be spoken by the elite, although a lot of words and even grammar tend to differ from the varieties spoken in the UK or North America. In French-speaking Africa, French tends to be spoken and English speakers are few and far between. In Portuguese-speaking Africa Portuguese tends to be spoken by the elites.

Note that many companies provide language lessons (English, French, Spanish, Italian etc.) as they intend to keep their staff long-term. So the last couple of hours at work could be dedicated to language lessons.

Stereotypes they have about foreigners

Non-Africans, especially Europeans and North Americans, are not admired to say the least. Many in Africa believe that White people have a debt to repay to Africa, the debt being decades of colonialism. “They took everything we had” is a common saying, meaning that Europeans are believed to have spoiled local resources.

Africans also believe that non-Africans tend to act like a privileged group in Africa. “We give them everything, yet they still complain” is a common saying. So if you want to be appreciated by Africans, you want to enjoy simple life, be happy, and blend in.

Cultural tip: when negotiating, you want to ask for a “price for Africans.” That is, even if you're from Europe, you want to smile and be jovial. “How much for this?” and they'll say “10 dollars” and you'll say “that's that White people's price my friend. As an African I want the African price!” and they'll laugh and say something like “OK 5 dollars.”


Handshakes are the most common form of greeting. But you'll notice that in many African countries greeting is a little sloppy and informal. They might ask you questions like “how is your family's health? “Or “how are your children doing at school?” The answer to such questions is always “fine, thank you” and never something like “well my grandmother has joint pain” or “my son got a D in math and he's getting remedial classes.” You get the idea.

Small talk

In the business world a lot of the small talk will be catching up with the business gossip. Football (or soccer) is widely discussed, including qualifiers for the African Nations Cup and the World Cup. Almost every man has an opinion on how football teams should run. Women tend to discuss their children a great deal, but rarely discuss their husbands. “Great” African leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Hassan II of Morocco, Felix Houphouet Bouagni of the Ivory Coast, Boumediène of Algeria or Samora Machel of Mozambique among others tend to be discussed a great deal. The more you know about these leaders the better.


Big rule. If people show up uninvited, never serve meals. Africans do the same, and they don't serve meals to those who show up uninvited. Same goes for those who show up to deliver something and end up staying for a chat. Never serve those a meal. In some cases not even a drink. Give them a beer and you're basically inviting them to stay indefinitely.

When invited for a meal, Africans will usually specify that it's for a meal. If you want to invite them for a meal, choose a restaurant rather than entertain them at home. If you entertain them at home they could stay indefinitely.

When asked “what did you have for lunch” a lot of Africans will say “I didn't eat anything.” Usually they did have lunch, but it's considered rude to say what you had for lunch, because often it's an indication of the kind of food you like to eat. Saying what you had for lunch could be interpreted as a hint that they should treat you to that lunch.

At home

Girls are expected to cook and clean and start cooking and cleaning at a very young age. Girls also watch a great deal of television, and in most countries, are not expected to talk much. The older women get, the more “liberated” they are meaning the more freedom they have to speak their mind.

Men tend to watch a great deal of television or recede into meditation and contemplations. The older men get, the less they are expected to talk in many cases. Men would rather play games such as checkers or “Oware” (also called awale in some countries) a game somewhat different from backgammon but with some similarities (google that one, and you'll need to learn how to play it if you're staying in Africa).

Everyday life (hospitals, banks, the post office, pharmacies)

Here's the open secret about African hospitals. There are good doctors and terrible doctors. The good doctors need to be bribed. So it's always a good idea to have an African friend who knows the good doctors and knows how to bribe them.

Banks are in most cases outdated, and many use the post-office for bank transfers. In most African countries, the post-office is mainly for banking purposes, although many rent a mail box at the post office as most African homes don't have a P.O. Box. Some private individuals and companies also rent mail boxes and provide the kind of financial services the post-office provides.

Pharmacies tend to have all the basic medication, and in many cases, won't ask for prescriptions. That is you can buy any medication without a prescription. Watch out if you have teenage children, because a lot of teenage children buy medication at the pharmacy and use them as recreational drugs.


Some African big cities have supermarkets, others don't. Some have a good choice of products, others don't. Either way don't count on finding clothes or cosmetics, and bring those from your home country.

Some food such as cheese can be very hard to find in some African countries. Meat, fish and dairy are also often sold way past their expiration date. So you'll need to learn how to recognize the freshness of a product. Bread can be hard to find in some places, and costs something crazy like 5 dollars a loaf in other places.

Many have found cockroaches or other insects in the products they buy, and you can't sue them for a million dollars if that happens. The idea is, when shopping, here's the trick. Adopt a very calm, slow demeanor. Ask to pick and choose your own products. Check the expiration date and smell the product for freshness. If there's a strong smell, tell them you'll come back next time. 

Asking favors

Africans rarely ask for favors because it's considered rude. If you ever borrow money, and this has happened to me several times, they could ask you to pay them back twice. That is you'll pay them back, and they'll come back to you again asking them to pay them back. So, you want to sign some kind of paper stating that they've been paid back.

Other favors tend to involve getting visas and helping their children get jobs. Don't make it sound like getting a visa or getting a job is easy, because it often isn't. If you have a car, some people might try to take advantage of you by having you drive them around.

If you can't provide a favor, rather than shooting a “no” at them, you want to be vague and say something like “I don't know where I'll be tomorrow, I could go back to my home country.” Always a good idea to make it sound like you will be leaving very soon, unless you have some kind of business that requires your presence. Even then, make it sound like you're headed home on vacation anytime soon.


Bragging is often done in subtle forms in Africa. Usually involves showing pictures taken at fancy places, or wearing a high-end suit. Many African men will brag about their sports achievements (like scoring 40 points at a big basketball game or scoring three goals at a big soccer game) and women will brag about their children's achievements. Either way, never overtly brag about money or status.


If you are a non-African man or woman, you could be highly coveted for marriage or dating. So a few things you should know. African men rarely talk about their intentions, and if you're dating them, you will have to follow them without knowing where you're headed. African men also tend to be very selfish during sex. And African men could try to marry you, get their visa work done, and disappear.

African women get more aggressive with age. Younger African women tend to be shy but tend to become ferocious as they grow older.

If you have teenage children, a lot of African countries have something I'll call “play dates.” That is boys and girls will gather at someone's house in the absence of the parents, and will “make out” randomly, and in some not-so-rare cases, the “make out” could end in oral sex, or in some cases orgies. So you may want to consider whether there are adults supervising your children when they go to friends' homes.


Most marriages in Africa tend to be marriages of convenience. If you ask an African woman why she married her husband, she will cite all kinds of reasons ranging from “he had a car” to “he worked for the government” to “his brother is a captain at the army” to any reason other than “love.”

Most wedding ceremonies have religious elements in them. Muslims will have Muslim ceremonies and will separate men and women. Christians and Catholics will celebrate the wedding at the Church. Either way, dowries exist in many societies. For Muslims, men have to “buy” the woman by giving her parents all kinds of gifts and money, which are negotiated beforehand. Christians also negotiate dowries, sometimes women have to buy men, and sometimes it's men who have to buy women. Dowries vary from culture to culture.

How they treat children

Children in most African countries are expected to behave like responsible adults. Being a child is often not an “excuse” for bad behavior. Children tend to be talked to like adults, have the same dress code rules as adults, and are expected to use full sentences and articulate speech like adults. Children are expected to help parents from a very, very young age. In some cases children as young as 3 or 4 are expected to help in the kitchen or herd the cattle or whatever.

Babies are usually never left alone, and are often bundled up and carried on the mother's back until around the age of 2. Because babies are never left alone, they seldom cry.

Pets and animals

Cats and dogs tend to be considered unclean. In some African countries, chickens can be raised as pets. Dogs are mainly used for security purposes, as they tend to bark when something dangerous is about to happen. Cats are rarely adopted.


Reckless and proud. Many Africans will drive recklessly, and will be proud of doing so. You will need all the patience in the world for driving, as drivers will do the stupidest things, especially busses and trucks. So you will sometimes have to wait for hours for a bus or a truck to be able to pull themselves out of being stuck on a turn.


I could go country by country but I'll be succinct. Most countries either have a predominant Muslim population with a Catholic or Christian minority, or a predominantly Christian or Catholic population with a significant Muslim minority.

Briefly, here's the deal. Muslims tend to be very moderate in their practice, many won't even fast during Ramadan, but many will pray. Many Muslim men and some Muslim women will marry Christians. When Muslims marry Christians, they don't mind their Christian spouse eating pork or drinking alcohol.

Pentecostal Churches are huge around Africa, especially in Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and a few other countries. Many churches will claim their leader is the Messiah and has vast healing powers. Such Churches tend to be organized around a network and are very helpful for members, as members can find jobs or in some cases get visas to attend conferences in Europe or the United States, and will often overstay their visa.

Either way, it's common for Muslims to convert to Christianity or Christians to convert to Islam.

Smoking, alcohol and recreational (legal and illegal) drugs

Smoking is not as prevalent as in India or Eastern Europe. Many Africans have some kind of genetic predisposition whereby they are not addicted to cigarettes. Many will smoke the occasional cigarette if they have to, but addicted smokers are not the norm, although they exist. In many African countries, you should never smoke in front of male elders, and if an elder comes you have to hide your cigarette.

Same goes for alcohol and addiction. Many Africans will have the occasional beer if they have to, but few will drink on a regular basis. However, when drinking with Africans, keep in mind that many don't know the art of drinking and could overindulge in drinks, in some cases drink until they pass out.

Recreational drugs such as marijuana exist, but are illegal in all African nations. If possible, avoid smoking marijuana. Many Africans will be addicted to pain killers and mood stabilizers and take those as recreational drugs.

Death and funerals

Most funerals are religious in nature. Muslims will have an imam come over and recite prayers, a wake will be held, and the person who died will be buried the next day. Christians will hold religious ceremonies and wakes.

Either way, in most African nations, it's considered weird to be overly emotional about the death of a loved one. People cry, but there tends to be no hysteria or no exaggeration in emotions. Africans tend not to mourn the way Asians or Middle Easterners do.

Social gatherings (conferences, cocktails parties etc.)

Africans will show up at social gatherings in a suit and if they bring their wife and children along everyone will be impeccably dressed. It's considered rude to talk to someone you've never met before, so always wait to be introduced before you talk to someone. If you talk to someone you've never met before, they will probably pretend to talk on the phone, or either way, will give you the silent treatment.

K12 education system

Technology is scarce, textbooks tend to be scarce. So children will not receive handouts or use textbooks, meaning that teachers have to write everything on the board and children will copy what's on the board in their notebooks. In high school teachers might use dictation rather than writing on the board.

Teachers tend to be strict and corporal punishment exists. Many schools have no clear rules, but will have rules something along the lines of “any breach of common sense will be severely punished.” Most schools are mixed-gender, and sexual harassment is unfortunately very common.

University education system

Most African countries have one or two universities, at most 5 or 6 universities. Nepotism is very common in college admissions and it's often the children of the elite who get the priority in admissions.

Again, most professors will use dictation and no textbooks or technology will be used. Experiments are rare in science, and very few practical things tend to be taught.

How their elites behave

The elites tend to be respected. There are some cases of abuse of power, but many in the elites won't be bullies. Some members of the elite choose to lead simple lives, while others will embezzle money but still lead simple lives. Others will embezzle money and lead the high life. Either way, unlike Asia or the Middle East, African elites rarely purchase real estate in Europe, and only a handful of them do.


Music and dance of course are favorite pastimes. Hollywood and Bollywood are very popular in many African nations. There's a saying that you “cannot call yourself an African if you haven't seen all the Bruce Lee movies, the entire Dallas and Columbo series, and Kojak.”

There's also a saying that “the first thing an African child does is kick a ball.” Football is very popular and stadiums tend to be packed, even for minor games. Martial arts and boxing are popular for men. The late Lady Diana is immensely popular among many African women, and her books and photo albums are often best-sellers.


Smart phones are ubiquitous and YouTube and Facebook are often the most popular sites. If you want to invest in technology in Africa, here's what you need to know.

Power cuts are frequent and generators can blow up because of the heat. There are very few electricians in Africa, meaning you will have to bring the entire team with you, anywhere from electricians to engineers to installers to everything else. Expect most Africans to be very slow when learning to use the technology, and not to take their job of using the technology seriously.

In sum, if Africans come to you asking for “technology” it's probably a euphemism for weapons. Because anything with technology in it tends to be abandoned very quickly in Africa.

Intellectual conversation

Try to avoid discussing the Bible or the Quran because many claim to have read those books but really never opened them. “Freedom fighters” and “liberation” are often discussed in intellectual conversation. Very few Africans know anything about economic theory or military strategy or good governance. Africans tend to look up to their leaders, so you want to discuss leaders a lot.

How to deal with money

Unlike the Middle East where money is taboo, Africans tend to be very open about money. In pricing, every cent will be discussed. Always shoot the price at them straight, because they're not buying anything if they don't know the price.

Africans are shy negotiators and their way to hint that they want you to lower the price is by constantly delaying their buying decision. That is they will constantly tell you “I'll be back tomorrow” and if they like you they will be back, but they will also expect you to give them generous discounts.

The legal system

When Africans get arrested, before they do anything, they tend to try to negotiate a bribe with the officers. If it's a famous guy like Oscar Pistorius, could be an offer of millions of dollars. Other people will offer bribes based on their income.

The police and the justice system will then meet to try to figure out what kind of bribes they can extract from you, and also the severity of the allegations against you. If it's rape, you could get away with a small bribe. If it's murder of a normal citizen, could be a generous bribe. If it's a celebrity or a member of the elite you harmed, you're facing jail time.

Farewells and before you leave the country

Many leave Africa without telling anyone. Many “escape” from Africa. Either way farewell parties are not common, or tearful goodbyes are not common. Most people leave Africa with little emotion, and Africans tend not to care that they are leaving.

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