U is for Understanding African Culture

This entry is part 23 of the series Out of Africa

UWhen the “New South Africa” dawned, I was working as an RN in a busy hospital. The superintendent organized a speaker to lecture us on the subject of African Culture. What an eye-opener it was to many of us. Although we had lived most of our lives in this country, there were traditions we knew nothing about, and some we even considered wrong.

We had to learn. Because a group of a different culture do something differently, it doesn’t mean it’s not correct. It’s important that we who live in the Global Village we call Earth, learn about and respect one another. Many of us come from European stock. Others are from the African tribes that go back far into the history of this lovely land. Many of them have much to teach us.

Respect for Elders: African values include a high respect for their elders. I have become used to being greeted by the younger generation, regardless of race, as “Mama” (Mother) while my husband gets “Tata” (Father).

U-massaiGoing through a door: The man goes ahead of the woman. This way he can protect her from any danger on the other side.

Carrying the Load: Women carry the packages, often on their heads, while the men hold a stick. Once again, this is so he is free to defend her.

Showing Modesty: Women feed their babies in public, and in the tribal areas often wear no covering above the waist. Early missionaries to Zaire were shocked to see this, and tried to impress on their new converts the need to dress “modestly”. Only once they sat down and learned the customs did they discover in that particular tribe, the only women who covered their breasts were prostitutes and missionaries!

Pointing a Finger: This is regarded as extremely rude and offensive. Although there are different ways, most will indicate the object with the chin and widen their eyes.

Right Handed Eating: The left hand is kept for other unsanitary tasks. Never touch food in the company of the traditional African with your left hand.

A Hiss or Kiss: This is not a sign of rudeness. It’s an acceptable way of drawing attention from someone.

u - hutPersonal Space
: Growing up in one room with 9 other people gives the traditional African a different approach to space to those of us who grew up with our own bedroom! You might be sitting on an empty bus, and the next person to climb on sits right next to you. He’s not intentionally crowding your space. He’s doing what is normal in his culture.

Time Management: This causes much frustration for those of us of European stock. For the African, things happen when they’re meant to. They do not focus on the future but on the past and present. The future cannot be rushed. They find our pressing need to plan the future as both arrogant and ridiculous.

Flexibility: In African culture, if you miss the bus, you settle down and wait for the next one. If plans get changed, you accept the situation and carry on with a positive attitude. This is an approach to life I think I almost envy!

Planning for the Future: How can you plan when you don’t know what might happen? If an African plans a meeting, their approach is far more relaxed than that of the European. As an example, recently one of our church leaders organized a free luncheon for students. She made no attempt to find out how many would be there. Everyone was welcome! To my organised mindset, this was impossible. How could you plan a meal for an unknown number of people? Yet somehow, it all worked out. Everyone had food and a good time was had by all.

u-childrenCalling Another: Beckoning someone with your palm upwards is considered rude. The palm should face the ground, and fingers be drawn inwards.

Bottom of the Foot: This is the dirtiest part of the body, something I have to remember with my practice of sitting with my feet up on a stool. 

Self Control: In African culture, it is very important not to offend or embarrass others in public, or show any type of negative emotions. As I write this, there is a wave of Xenophobia sweeping our land, and there have been some really ugly scenes on the political front. This behavior is so foreign to the African culture, one has to wonder what has gone wrong.

Relationships: These are important, and sometimes difficult for us to understand. They will talk of their “brother” or their “sister” when it is someone they have only known for a short while.

Church Worship: Often a very joyous occasion, with dancing, clapping and creative percussion instruments. The first time I attended such a service I was startled to see their main source of rhythm was slapping hard on their Bibles! Their services certainly don’t take place with an eye on the time. They run their course, and when they’re over, they’re over.

Funeral Traditions: This is a vast topic, but sufficient to say, funerals usually involve all those who knew the deceased, and possibly even the entire village. Busses are hired, animals slaughtered, and it may become a time of great rejoicing. In the religions of Africa, life does not end with death. Is this perhaps something some of us Christians lose sight of? Life is believed to continue into another realm, and even in the Christian churches many of the traditions of the ancestors remain.

Receiving a Gift: with both hands outstretched indicates extreme appreciation.

Shaking hands: Traditional Africans have a different way of shaking hands. As relationships between the races in the New South Africa develop, this difference is becoming blurred, with both sides of the spectrum tending to try and reach the other.

Let’s end this short look at African Culture by learning how to shake hands the African way. Watch this one-minute video. Try it out with a friend and see how it feels.

All photos: License: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ – Free for commercial use / No attribution required