Handshakes are appropriate, right? Not always.

Travelling to new places and seeing the world is one of the most invaluable experiences we can give ourselves. Travel opens us up to the world. Travelling across the continent is a different kind of beautiful; it will ground you and show you just how alike and connected to one another we are.

The growth of social media sites has somewhat opened dialogue across the continent and made it easier to relate to each other. For instance Twitter has become home to the Jollof rice banter: both Nigerians and Ghanaians insist they make it best. Those of us who haven’t had the meal just salivate on the side lines waiting for the day we will be able to weigh in.

Pan-Africanist and satirist Siyanda Mohutsiwa, of Botswana, has often started trending hashtags on twitter that relate to the Afropolitan movement. The hashtags start conversations that go on for days. Africans are connecting and we are talking to each other more than ever thanks to technology. So, now that we are connecting more than ever, what does one have to keep in mind when you finally decide to see your continent?

From saying “hello” “please” and “thank you” to tipping,travel can get tricky when you’re not sufficiently prepared for the cultural differences.

Food and Drink

In Libya, you can’t toast the deal you’ve just sealed with your favourite scotch or whiskey. Alcohol is banned in Libya. The penalties for being caught illegally consuming alcohol can be very steep. Your best choice for a celebratory drink is coffee or tea.

It is said in Nigeria an empty plate during a meeting will likely be misconstrued as you wanting to be served more food. Unless you truly wouldn’t mind another plate of food, consider leaving a spoonful or two in your plate. During a meal, don’t be too focused on talking. The conversation may get light, steered by your host, but if they are not talking dig in and enjoy the silent meal.

Business and meetings

In Mozambique they like to keep things professional and proper. During a first meeting, the most polite way to address someone is O Senhor (Mr) or A Senhora (Mrs/Ms), regardless of age or social standing. Do not deviate unless they tell you it’s alright to address them another way (that is, by their first name, for instance).

Africans, especially outside of big cities like Johannesburg and Lagos where it’s all hustle and bustle, are big on polite and enthusiastic greetings. Kiswahili is a language that is spoken in a number of central and east African countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar, and therefore your meeting will be off to a good start with any of the following greetings and pleasantries:

  • Jambo – means hello and is said with friendly and warm inflection
  • Habari – means hello or good morning and shows respect to elders
  • Nzuri – means good,  nice, beautiful or “I am fine”
  • Asante – means thank you

In most countries, the person hosting the meeting is the one who gets to open and close it – it’s considered rude to rush to closing when you are a visitor. The same is true of rushing to talk business when the host is still asking about your family.

Behaviour and clothing

Sorry for the left-handed, but using your left hand is frowned upon in quite a few African countries. In some countries it is viewed as unclean, and unlucky in others. Try to not eat, greet or pass objects with your left hand if you can help it.

In Muslim countries, it is best to dress modestly as much as possible in public spaces. When you’re visiting temples and other holy spaces, the recommendation is that women cover their hair, upper arms and legs. Men are expected to cover their chests in public.

If you are travelling to Rwanda during April, be mindful that during that month the country remembers the genocide that happened in 1994. In remembering the victims of the atrocity, the country is quiet. No music is played in public spaces, and there are no jovial celebrations.

Tipping and other etiquette

When visiting Egypt, you will quickly learn about the concept of baksheesh. It’s a method of giving money that works in three ways: 

  1. Alms giving, which is one of the tenets of Islam. It is said that by giving to the poor, the giver is made more holy.
  2. Paying for services rendered works just as it sounds, it’s like tipping but more. Everyone who provides a service expects baksheesh. From porters to guards who open doors, you need to have piastres in your pocket to give this baksheesh as you go.
  3. The baksheesh for granting of favours opens doors. Your holiday can go from good to great, with a few Egyptian Pounds or a handful of piastres will make rare experiences within reach. With each location you visit, you need only ask.

Regardless of what you tip for on your travels, it’s important to do it in local currency as not all the people have access to exchange services. Though a few dollars are a lot of money they won’t be much help to low-income workers who can’t exchange them.

Handshakes are appropriate, right? Not always. In a mixed-gender setting, wait to see what the locals do. Sometimes it will be appropriate to only nod or shake hands; and other times, depending on extent of the relationship, a hug might be in order.

Above all else, be kind, respectful and open to the people you meet and the new things they may teach you. If you forget all these tips, remember to be open to the culture of the countries you visit as it’s the only way you will stay in the moment and enjoy your travels.

Did you know?

  • Kiswahili is spoken in six countries
  • According to African Check, Nigerian is Africa’s number one champagne importer
  • In the 1960s, 26 countries gained independence from their colonisers
  • In some cultures, flowers are only exchanged to convey condolences
  • South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland are a common monetary area where the South African Rand is used