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Monday, October 1, 2012

Africa Dreaming: Not So Common Sense Tips for Your First Trip to the Continent

 by: Nicole Maisha

I first made my way to “the Continent” while in college.  It’s been a love affair ever since.  The diversity of ethnicities, languages, landscapes and cultures is mind-blowing.  To get a taste of Africa’s sheer vastness just picture snow capped mountains in South Africa, waterfalls in Zimbabwe, high plateaus in Ethiopia, the River Nile in Sudan, ocean side cities in Senegal and Guinea, and the Sahel desert in Mali. The good news is that despite overwhelmingly negative news coverage, women of color continue to choose African destinations for adventure, volunteerism and connection of their roots and the birthplace of humanity.  They are discovering a hidden truth - travel to the continent can be some of the most fulfilling, exciting and humbling you will ever experience.

Here are some not so common sense tips for the bold and open-minded traveler headed to Africa.

Greetings are Important: In many places, it’s considered rude to start talking without a proper and formal “how are you and the family?” to initiate the discussion.  Before you travel, learn a few greetings, salutations and other key phrases in one of the local languages.  Many countries have an official “colonial” language, but people tend to use their own local ethnic languages in day-to-day life.  Pick up some key greetings in the most frequently used local language.  Along those lines, take small gifts for your hosts or other families you befriend and plan to keep in touch.

Be Prepared to Bargain and Know Your Money: Most “market” shopping involves bargaining with the seller.  You’ll be hard pressed to find standard prices marked on most items.  When you ask “how much,” it’s safe to assume that the price has been marked up by 30% or more (sometimes by %100).  Merchants expect you to negotiate with them, as the market is regulated by the bargaining dance between the merchant and customer.  Besides paying entirely too much for goods, you’ll miss out on some great shopping fun if you simply accept the first price quoted. Be prepared to do quick currency conversions in your head, especially when you’re in the middle of serious haggling.  The last thing you want is to have to interrupt intense negotiations to ask, “wait, how much is 5000 CFA in dollars?”

Understand that Social Relations are Different: Social and racial dynamics can be more nuanced and complex than many are used to or expect.  For example, domestic workers are common in many households, from those with very modest economic means to more affluent families.  Some visitors are not used to having maids, guards and other servants working for them, and may be offended or uncomfortable.  However you chose to respond, know that it’s the norm for many social groups in Africa.  Household help may range from locals trying to make a living to support their families and refugees needing financial opportunity to child laborers and what may be considered modern-day slaves.  It’s not easy to tell the difference just by looking, so don’t make assumptions right away.  Ask or do your research if you are concerned. 

Also, each country has its own history of complex social, ethnic and racial relations.  Interactions are not always so “black and white.” Your idea of who is black, who is privileged and who is oppressed may not fit neatly into the existing classifications in your host country.  For example, in Sudan I was considered “Arab” versus “Black African”.  The media portrays the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan as Arabs against Africans, while most of those who are Arab look very similar to my very brown friends and family in America. The point is there is usually more to the story than meets the eye.

Prepare for Developing Country Conditions: While conditions vary throughout the continent, for the most part standards are much different than in North America and Europe.  You may be shocked at the intensity of poverty you witness, the number of beggars or street children, poor road conditions and otherwise sub-standard infrastructure.  Modes of road transportation can range from taxis for getting around town to overcrowded buses and tightly packed cars for traveling between cities and smaller towns.  From my conversations with people, the hardest things to deal with are the poverty and wealth disparity.  Understand that this is the reality, but try not to let disillusionment about the conditions color your entire trip.  You can also use your experience to become an educated global citizen.  Learn more about the economy, politics and history of the country and get involved!

See a Travel Doctor and Purchase Travel Insurance: Instead of letting fear of malaria, traveler’s diarrhea or other infectious or communicable diseases spoil your trip, prepare and protect yourself. See a travel doctor for advice on prevention and recommended shots for the country you’re visiting. Note: A Yellow Fever vaccination card is required for entry into many West African countries, so find out if you need one.  You should also consider purchasing travel insurance which offers air evacuation in case of medical emergency.  Without it you could be paying thousands of dollars out of pocket should you need to get home due to injury or illness.  

Remain Flexible and Adaptable: Not everything will go according to plan.  Things may seem chaotic at first, but there is a rhythm and order that you will soon come to understand.  Besides its tremendous natural resources, Africa’s most significant value lies in its amazing cultures and human capital.  Learning about the strong cultural and social ties will open your eyes to how life flows in Africa.  Be prepared for a social time reference, meaning things begin when the people arrive and are ready for it to begin.  This is different from a linear time reference where events commence because a clock says it’s time.  Punctuality has a different meaning, particularly for social affairs.  Try not to get frustrated if you’re a person who tends to go by the clock.  Observe and learn. 

Identify and Let Go of Your Own Stereotypes: Africa remains an enigma in the psyche of many.  Much of what people imagine is based on extreme or one-sided depictions in the media or from romanticized historical portrayals.  Africa’s countries and people are far from one-dimensional.  Not everyone is poor.  Not everyone is a refugee.  Not everyone is a descendants of royalty.  Not everyone dances or sings.  However, most want a better life for themselves and future generations, just like everyone else on the planet.  As soon as you let go of any need to pity or hold Africans on a pedestal, you’ll be prepared for an amazing journey.  Be ready to experience beauty contrasted with despair, resilience and resourcefulness alongside sadness and joy and all other known human emotions.  Take in the colors, sounds, textures and stimulation of all that is sustaining and life-giving in Africa.   Embrace the trip of a lifetime!


  1. Great reminders for our upcoming journey to "the continent"! Thanks for sharing your rich experiences! :)

  2. You will have an amazing experience. Can't wait to hear about it!

  3. I never read any article that breaks it down like this. Thanks for the great information.