Traveling in the Spirit of Ubuntu, Part 2: Traversing the Continent With Cultural Sensitivity

In the second piece of a multi-part series on responsible tourism, scientist and travel expert Louise de Waal conveys the importance of travelling in a way that’s respectful of local people and traditions.

Africa is the second largest continent with an area of over 30 million square kilometers; however, most people do not realise the extent of its size, because of historical misrepresentations on many maps. A few years ago The True Size of Africa overlay map depicted the true immensity of this continent by showing how China, USA, India, and all of Europe can “fit” into the continent of Africa.

With Africa’s vast size comes a mind-boggling diversity of people: in the 55 recognised nation-states live a population of more than one billion people, which includes thousands of ethnic groups, even more tribes, and over 2,000 distinctly different languages. Having such substantial diversity comes with a need for cultural sensitivity in Africa towards the way people live, think, and behave.

The rural-urban dichotomy in Africa is also more pronounced than in any western country. African cities show many similarities with western urban areas including densely populated residential areas, office workers rushing between home and work, traffic jams, people walking around while on their mobile phones, high-end shopping areas, and restaurants. The impoverished rural communities however are still very traditional in their beliefs, values, and societal hierarchy. For example, there remains a huge emphasis on the family, which not only includes the immediate family members, but also the extended family or tribe.

With this in mind, travelers need to be sensitive to the beliefs, values, customs, and feelings of the local people, and be mindful of what could be considered as inappropriate or offensive behaviour. We need to be open-minded and aware of our differences, which can be as simple as the perception of time.

“African time,” for example, is a well-known concept that refers to how African people tend to have a very laid-back attitude towards time (compared to westerners). If your guide is not there at 9am on the dot, relax and enjoy the scenery and you will find he will arrive a little later. This more relaxed attitude towards time is even sometimes reflected in language. If a South African indicates that he will do something now, now now, or just now, this could mean anything between immediately and never.

Try to learn some of the local language.  A few words can break down some of the cultural barriers and gain respect from the local people — if not a big smile for your bad pronunciation. Greetings are extremely important in the African culture, where people can spend 10-15 minutes enquiring about the well-being of their respective families; therefore why not learn a simple greeting and a ‘how are you’ in the local language? This will create an instant connection. Learn how to shake hands too, which can be quite elaborate and full of meaning — e.g. to show respect, put your left hand on your right forearm or elbow, while shaking hands.

Be thoughtful and modest in the way you dress in public and be aware of what is acceptable, especially when you visit religious sites. Skimpy shorts or skirts and bare shoulders are often frowned upon in Muslim dominated cultures, such as in North Africa and the East African coastal areas. Don’t walk straight from the beach on Zanzibar into a local village still wearing your swim wear. Show respect by wrapping a sarong around you or slipping into shorts and a t-shirt.

The beautiful African people are extremely photogenic. From the Himba women in the Kunene region of Namibia, who cover their bodies in otjize, giving them a beautiful red-brown tone, and braid their hair into elaborate hairstyles, to the San of Southern Africa with their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, and the Bedouins of the North African deserts. Please always respect their dignity and privacy and always ask permission before you take a photo. If you don’t know how, signalling with your hands never lets you down. If they say no, be graceful and retreat. If they say yes, maybe offer to send them a hard copy of the photograph.

Although very tempting, avoid giving money, especially to street children, as it creates an opportunity for exploitation. Parents may stop their children from going to school. The money a child collects may not end up in their belly, but instead be used to fuel an adult’s drug or alcohol addiction. Your money is better donated to a NGO or local charity that supports community projects, such as Child Welfare SA.

Help people to become independent and empowered, rather than reliant on handouts. The proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” says it all. Remember that one person with an income in Africa often supports an extended family of up to 10 other people. So support tourism businesses that provide jobs and training opportunities for local people, buy from local markets, and eat in local restaurants.

Pay a reasonable amount when shopping and at the same time avoid being overly generous. Easy tourist money can increase the prices for local people, putting certain goods or services out of their reach. Bartering is commonplace when buying curios and handicrafts at local markets, and local sellers can inflate prices for tourists. As a guideline, you can take about one-third off of the quoted price as a starting point; however, be aware that what is a small amount to you will be a lot more significant to the seller and possibly a meal for the day. Keep things in perspective, and don’t haggle too aggressively over a small amount. Pay a fair price, and always bargain with humour and a big smile on your face.

Many people are dependent on supplemental income that comes from tips. If you wish to leave tip at your hotel or lodge, use the tip box at reception, so your contribution gets divided amongst the entire staff (including the back of house staff). In restaurants, it is common to tip 10% on the total bill if you are satisfied with the food and service. For example, in South Africa it is customary to give car guards and petrol station attendants a small tip for their services.

Louise de Waal is the founder and former MD of Baobab Travel, which was one of the first tour operators to become Fair Trade in Tourism Approved by South Africa’s Fair Trade Tourism organization. She currently blogs for Green Girls in Africa, and the Good Holiday community.  She holds a PhD in environmental management.

Read the rest of Louise’s series here:

Part 1: What is Ubuntu?

Part 3: The Three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Part 4: Take Only Memories, Leave Nothing But Footprints

Want to discover the finer side of Africa? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Leave a Comment