17 African Cultural Values (To Know Before You Travel to Africa)

By Mark Wiens 85 Comments

African Cultural Values
African Cultural Values – Democratic Republic of Congo

In Africa, actions speak louder than words, especially if there is a barrier between languages.

In an effort to contextualize and be mindful of a complex mindset and worldview, here are a few African cultural values to be aware of when traveling in Africa!

1. Greeting – Hello and a Handshake

Greeting people in Africa is one of the most important things you can do.  A quick “hello,” paired with a handshake is a sufficient way to make a positive first impression with anyone.

2. Show Respect to EldersAfrican Cultural Customs

African cultural values are based on a foundation of the past and present, a leading reason why elders are so well respected.  Always acknowledge an elder, let them ask questions, and during mealtime elders should be served first.

3. Pointing At Things

Pointing at something or someone with the index finger is usually considered rude or just straight offensive – it’s not something you want to do. Different ethnic groups have different ways of pointing, but the method I usually employ is poking my chin in the right direction and widening my eyes.

4. Overhand Motion Calling

Avoid motioning to call a person with an upwards palm.  The preferred method is to call someone over with the palm faced down and pulling the fingers inwards.

5. Sole of the Foot

Just like in many cultures around the world, the very bottom of your foot is the very dirtiest part of your body.  Try not to directly point your foot sole towards anyone.

6. Eat with the Right Hand Ugali, Tanzanian Food

You might have heard this before, the right hand is for eating food and the left hand is reserved for the unsanitary task of what happens afterward.  Whatever you do, don’t touch African food with your left hand!

7. Hissing and Kissing Sounds

To call the attention of someone is often performed with a hissing or loud smack of the lips.  If you are not expecting it, the sounds might come as a surprise, but it’s totally acceptable and very common.

8. Silence is an African Value

Don’t be alarmed or nervous with spans of silence during African conversation.  When there’s something to be said, it will be said; when there’s nothing to be said, silence is perfectly fine.  There’s no need to feel uneasy during a period of silence in Africa, take the time just to enjoy the presence of others.

9. Time – A Little Less ImportantVisiting Family in Tanzania

Despite the use of clocks to tell “what time it is,” African clocks work differently; things fall into place as they unfold.  An African worldview does not focus far into the future, but dwells more on past events and whatever is happening currently.  Future scheduled times can’t be rushed and thinking so will only make one more and more frustrated.

10. Use Flexibility

Africa will teach you to be flexible. Closely relating to how future-time is of less importance, schedules aren’t always at the forefront of lifestyle.  If a plan gets shut down or changes drastically, there’s not always something you can do besides accept it and continue with a positive attitude.

11. Do NOT Publicly Show Anger, Frustration, or Impatience

Though circumstances have potential to become frustrating, it’s highly important to NOT publicly display any sort of negative feeling in public. Africans have incredible self control, being careful not to offend or shame anyone in public.

12. Positive CommunicationAfrican Smile

Positive communication is a key African cultural value. Along with not displaying public negativity there are countless ways to express “good,” or “ok.”  Don’t immediately get into a discussion about a hardship or struggle, these topics can be gradually be brought forth.

13. Relationships Matter

With future-time a little less important, current time is of extreme value.  Meeting people and spending time with others to develop lasting relationships is an aspect of African culture that is truly cherished.

14. Don’t Talk Too Much During a Meal

Simple small talk is permissible, but don’t try to talk too much business or seriousness during a meal.  Serious issues are handled after the meal.

15. Receive a Gift With Both Hands

If someone graciously gives you a gift, a non-verbal way to show extreme thankfulness is to accept it with both hands outstretched.

16.  The Un-Stated – “Sorry We’re Out”

There will inevitably be a circumstance in Africa where you go to a restaurant, order a dish, and a totally different dish is served to you – no questions asked. You will naturally complain, saying “this is not the dish I ordered.”  The waiter will shyly back away and simply tell you that what you ordered was not available. It can be a bit frustrating to say the least (remember #10, 11, and 12, and that African flexibility!).

17. Personal Space

It might seem odd (or even drive you crazy) when you are the only person on an empty bus and another person gets on and sits down right next to you. Imagine growing up in a single room with 10 people living together, or living with a clan of extended family; your idea of personal space might be a little different thinking in African terms.

African Cultural Values
African Cultural Values – Rwanda

In the end, remember that Africans are extremely gracious and caring people, ready to go the extra mile to respect and service others. Hopefully if we can understand a bit of African cultural values when we travel to Africa, we can make a positive impression; showing respect that will leave lasting memories!