- A year ago I left New York to travel around the world as Business Insider’s international correspondent. Over that time I visited over 20 countries.
- I spent the past three months of the trip in Africa, visiting Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania.
- While each country had a distinct culture and customs, I experienced many culture clashes while visiting Africa.
- Two of the biggest were getting accustomed to not using my left hand to eat in Nigeria and underestimating the extent to which traffic affects the pace of life in Lagos and Cairo.
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Culture clashes are impossible to avoid, particularly when you are an American.
For better or worse (but most likely worse), we tend to think of our way of doing things as the “right” way. When you start travelling, you realise that the American, or Western, way of doing things is just as strange to people from other cultures as theirs may seem to us.
While you are likely to have some cultural mix-ups as an American visiting European countries, it’s nothing compared to Africa, where things seem to work completely differently from the US.
Of course, Africa is not a monolith. The continent is larger than North America and comprises over 3,000 ethnic groups, speaking over 1,500 languages, residing in 54 countries. Regions and countries are sometimes as different from one another as America is from them.
For example, many North African countries constantly use the Arabic word “inshallah,” whereas the word is unheard of in many sub-Saharan countries. A common ingredient in food in southern Nigeria is locust beans, which aren’t used in the north of the country or in most other countries’ cuisines.
I spent the past three months of my travels in Africa, specifically in Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. During that time, I experienced countless culture clashes, culture shocks, miscommunications, and misunderstandings.
Here are just a few.
1. Dress in Morocco, Egypt, Tanzania, and many other countries is more conservative than in the US.
In just about every country with a large Muslim population, the rule of thumb is to dress much more conservatively than in the United States. While many Westerners tend not to associate Africa with Islam, it is the most common religion on the continent.
Countries with significant Muslim populations and customs informed by Islam include every country I visited: Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Kenya. Generally, people are expected to keep their shoulders and knees covered, and swimsuits are worn only on the beach.
The level of conservatism can vary greatly depending on what part of the country you are in. It would not be uncommon to find people dressed very liberally in resort towns like El Gouna or Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, or to find young people dressed in clothes you’d also find in New York City or London in upscale urban neighbourhoods like Westlands in Nairobi, Kenya. But you have to pay attention to where you are.
2. In Nigeria, as well in as many North African countries, it is considered bad form to eat or greet people with your left hand.
While it varies greatly from country to country, it is fair to say that in most African and Middle Eastern countries, you should avoid leading with your left hand.
As a left-handed person, I found this difficult to get used to. While I’m used to greeting and shaking hands with my right, it was very strange to try eating with my right hand. That said, locals in any country tend to give plenty of leeway to foreigners for mucking up cultural norms.
3. The electricity is always going out in Nigeria.
Electricity is notoriously hard to come by in Nigeria. Much of the country lacks a power grid, and even in Lagos, the business hub, power can go off for hours at a time without notice.
Most businesses and major complexes like hotels, company campuses, or schools have their own diesel generators that kick on when the power goes out, but sometimes generators break.
While I was visiting Business Insider’s Lagos office in January, there was a power outage followed by the office building’s generator breaking. With a couple of hours left in the workday, some employees started heading home.
Hours of productivity and economic output are lost every day to Nigeria’s power grid, marking a stark departure from the consistent presence of electricity (WiFi) in my New York life.
4. In Lagos and Nairobi, you have to go through metal detectors and X-ray machines before entering any building or complex.
Before you enter any public building, hotel, bar, restaurant, or shopping complex in Lagos and Nairobi, you will have to go through a security check akin to what you might experience at an airport in the US.
You don’t have to take off your shoes, but you do have to go through a metal detector, put any bags you have through an X-ray machine, and possibly receive a pat-down. If you are driving into a complex, security guards will check under the car and in the trunk for any weapons or explosives.
Considering the issues with terrorism that both Nigeria and Kenya regularly experience, the tight security is understandable. Sometimes it is not enough.
While Lagos has more petty crime than terrorism, Nairobi has suffered multiple attacks from Al Shabaab, a Somali jihadist group. In January, Al Shabaab attacked a hotel complex in a wealthy district of Nairobi, killing more than 20 people.
5. Corruption and bribery is a very real part of everyday life in Nigeria, as well as some other African countries.
Countries in Africa have a reputation for widespread corruption. In some cases that is accurate, while in others it’s more about Western perceptions.
Nigeria has a long history as a place perceived, by both its citizens and outsiders, as incredibly corrupt. A US News & World Report survey found it was perceived as the fourth-most corrupt country in the world, and it scored a 27 out of 100 on a corruption index (100 is very clean) by Transparency International.
President Muhammadu Buhari has made very public efforts to curb corruption in Nigeria, with mixed results.
I didn’t expect to, but I experienced the corruption firsthand. While I was driving in Lagos with a colleague, my car was stopped by a police officer who proceeded to shake down my driver for a “fine” when he decided one of his identification papers was out of date. No ticket was issued, but money was exchanged.
My colleague told me later that the police officer almost certainly stopped us on the highway when he saw my Caucasian face in the back seat.
I had a similar experience while leaving a national park in Tanzania, though my tour guide was able to talk the officer out of asking for a bribe.
6. In Tanzania, a standard hotel checkout is 10 a.m., not noon.
As someone who likes to take their time leaving a hotel, I found this was a hard cultural shift to get used to.
In nearly every country I have visited, the standard hotel checkout time is noon or, at the earliest, 11 a.m. If it was earlier, concierges had no trouble pushing my checkout time by an hour or two to accommodate me.
That was not the case in Tanzania. I stayed in multiple hotels and lodges in northern Tanzania – near or in the Serengeti National Park – and on the island of Zanzibar. Every hotel had a strict 10 a.m. checkout. This led to lots of early-morning scrambling to pack my bags.
7. People in North African countries like Morocco and Egypt use the word “inshallah” all the time — and it can mean a dozen different things.
Spend any amount of time in the Middle East or North Africa, and you will become familiar with the Arabic phrase “inshallah.” The phrase translates roughly to “if God wills it so,” but the colloquial meaning of inshallah depends on the context. It could mean “hopefully,” “I hope so,” “maybe,” “who knows,” or “it’s not my problem,” among a dozen other things. If it’s a mother or father speaking to their kids, it could mean “nope, we are never going to the amusement park.”
In Egypt and Morocco, it punctuated the answer to just about any question I asked a local. At times, I found the phrase frustrating, until I learned to decipher the meaning.
In Egypt, when I asked a tour guide what time we would leave for the day, he told me, “9:30 a.m., inshallah.” We left an hour later.
Other times, it’s a polite cover for something someone doesn’t want to tell you, like when a guesthouse had given up my room because of a double booking.
As a traveller, I found that getting used to the different meanings of the word was challenging – and critical.
8. My partner routinely experienced an unprecedented level of harassment in Morocco and Egypt when walking on the street by herself.
While travelling in Egypt and Morocco in December and January, my partner experienced harassment and verbal abuse related to both her gender and her race – and was even followed – particularly when I was not with her on the street.
In Cairo, Egypt, my partner went for a walk one morning. She intended to spend half the day exploring by herself. She came back two hours later, exhausted from the harassment and apprehensive about going out without me for the rest of our time there.
The harassment isn’t limited to foreigners and tourists. A2013 United Nations study found that over 99% of Egyptian women said they had been harassed.
“As an Egyptian woman, you spend your entire life dealing with sexual violence,” an Egyptian woman told Der Spiegel. “My mother is in her mid-fifties and she still gets harassed.”
The New York Times columnist Jada Yuan wrote about having a similar experience while visiting Tangier, Morocco, last year.
Harassment of women is not exclusive to Arab society. As my partner reminded me, she had experienced plenty of catcalls on the streets of New York and harassment related to her gender and race growing up in a suburb of Washington, DC. But the frequency and degree were far more severe.
9. In Egypt and some other Arab nations, it’s not common to drink alcohol.
An American might find visiting a Muslim nation a shock for a simple reason: Alcohol is often either forbidden or very taboo.
As drinking is banned by the Quran, according to many interpretations by Muslim clerics, it should be little surprise that drinking is not a major part of the culture.
In the Arab countries I visited – Morocco and Egypt – alcohol is legal, and some partake, but it is definitely not a common practice outside of resort areas and hotels.
It’s fairly easy for a tourist to find a bar, nightclub, or hotel where you can drink, but if you make friends with an Egyptian or Moroccan, be aware that there’s a strong likelihood they don’t drink. In Morocco, I made the mistake of offering alcohol to an observant Muslim, who replied with a smile that he drinks only “Berber whiskey,” or Moroccan mint tea.
10. In Lagos and Cairo, the traffic is so bad that it can sometimes take hours to drive a mile — and it can dictate the entire pace of your day.
How long is your commute? Thirty minutes? An hour? Ninety minutes?
In Lagos, it can take over four hours to drive several miles from outer neighbourhoods of the city to the business districts.
While traffic in Cairo isn’t quite as bad, it far outpaces traffic issues in any American city outside of maybe Los Angeles. A 2010 World Bank study found that traffic cost Egypt about 3.6% of its gross domestic product every year.
I quickly learned that every plan I made in either city was contingent on the traffic. In Lagos, I asked all my business acquaintances to meet me at my hotel so only one of us had to deal with the traffic. People still canceled on me at the last minute when it was too bad.
11. In Lagos and Nairobi, street hawkers may try to sell you everything from window wiper blades to water bottles while you wait in traffic.
A more peculiar phenomenon accompanying the extreme traffic is the prevalence of street hawkers walking up and down city streets and highways and selling just about anything you can think of.
It’s fairly common to find hawkers on New York City streets in the summer selling water bottles or candy, but in Lagos and Nigeria, you are just as likely to see one selling engine oil, window wiper blades, stuffed animals, flowers, or brooms.
Sometimes it feels as if you’re in a slow-moving mall.
12. In Morocco, Kenya, and some other African countries, eating with your hands is preferred to silverware.
It’s fairly common in Africa -in both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa – to eat the traditional way: with your hands.
Moroccan staples like tagine and couscous are designed to be eaten with your hands. Typically, with both dishes, a large platter is placed in the center of the table, and each person takes turns either rolling balls of couscous or using pieces of Moroccan bread to scoop up pieces of meat or sop up sauce.
Many other African countries, like Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, have cuisines designed to be eaten with your hands.
That doesn’t mean you have to. Any restaurant in those countries will provide you silverware – but as someone who routinely gets down and dirty with barbecue, I didn’t mind.
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