Africa Face to Face

A growing number of visitors are discovering that in addition to having wildlife and natural beauty, East Africa also wears a very human face.
By Dave Blanton - Voyagers International

Years as a tourist destination have done relatively little to erode traditional East African hospitality, especially outside of the metropolitan and tourist centers. As a short-term visitor, you will have contacts primarily with those in the tourist industry. But you can meet people and learn about traditional and modern culture, and go beyond the stereotyped tourist role. Here are some ideas that will help.

Meeting People
East Africa's cities are relatively hurried and impersonal by traditional African standards. Although it's not recommended that you approach someone on the street (or befriend someone who approaches you), there are places where it's easier to meet people. Restaurants, cafis, and bars are likely places, although if you visit the well-known tourist spots, you will probably meet another foreigner. In Nairobi try Nairobi University, the French Cultural Center, or the University Theater.

Some of the most interesting places to visit are the markets. There are large municipal fruit and vegetable markets. There are also innumerable open-air markets in smaller trading centers that are held on a weekly basis.

Remember that even in cities, socializing before doing business is the general rule throughout East Africa. Be sure to begin any conversation with small talk, even if it is a quick over-the-counter transaction. You will invariably get better results than with an impersonal let's-get-down-to-business approach.

Language, of course, is the key to effectively entering another culture. If you speak English reasonably well, you will have an easy time in East Africa, since one of the official languages is English. It will help, though, even if you are staying only a few weeks, to begin studying Kiswahili the moment you arrive. Better yet, begin before you leave home, so you have a head start.

Greetings are an especially important part of African life. In traditional societies, greetings can be quite lengthy, functioning both as a means of paying respect and as a way of communicating news about the community. In modern East Africa, greetings still tend to be important. For formal introductions, use English unless all the people involved share another language. In casual greetings, however, try out Swahili. Begin with "Jambo" ("Hello"), and then learn more elaborate and more formal greetings. There are a number of beginning Swahili books, and almost any travel guide will have a list of stock phrases. Take the time to learn the correct pronunciation, and that will clearly indicate to anyone within hearing distance that you are a cut above the average foreign tourist. When you extend yourself a bit more than others do, you won't have any lack of teachers. Most African languages are easy to learn for that reason. People will take up the role of mwalimu (teacher) if they see that you are trying.

What is true of Swahili is doubly true of other indigenous East African languages. If you can greet your listener in his or her own first language—Kikuyu, or Maasai, for example—it will help open doors. Whether you speak it flawlessly or even intelligibly matters little; it's the fact that you are trying.

Some sample Swahili to get you started:

Jambo .....................Hello
Asante ....................Thank you
Asante Sana ...........Thank you very much
Hakuna Matata ......No Problem
Karibu .....................Welcome
Habari? ..................How are you?
Mzuri .......................I'm fine
Kwa heri ..................Good-bye
Lala salama .............Have a good sleep

No matter where you go or what you do in East Africa, you will invariably be involved in some kind of bargaining situation. Some stores have fixed prices, but cost is usually a matter to be settled between you and the seller. The fact that you are obviously a tourist will tip the scales against you, and the seller will be trying to get the best possible price, which is only to be expected. One of the valuable functions of bargaining is that it tends to level out economic disparities. The seller adjusts the price to the ability of the buyer to pay. To people who are used to bargaining, having one inflexible price seems patently unfair.

In a bargaining situation (if you're in doubt about whether the price is fixed, always assume it isn't), never accept the first price offered. Counter with an offer that is some fraction of the price you're willing to pay (around 40%). Your counter offer will depend on what an item is worth to you, and on how much the seller has asked. Sometimes a seller will ask a ridiculously high price just to test you. Some tourists have been known to pay such a price, so occasionally it's worth a try. Don't be offended or walk away; instead, make a counter offer that is just as ridiculous on the low side. In most situations, however, come back with an offer that is 30 to 50 percent of the first asking price, and go from there. If the seller flatly states that prices are fixed, try somewhere else, especially if it is a tourist-oriented shop. If it's a shop where others seem to be paying fixed prices, such as a chemist or camera shop, still ask for a 10 percent discount. You will usually get it. Buying more than one item, of course, will help you get a better deal.

You never really know the prices of things until you shop around. A piece of material for which you bargained one shopkeeper down to 100 shillings may be available with almost no bargaining at another shop for 35 shillings. The more aware you are of the local prices, the better position you will be in when it comes time to buy.

Some Sample Prices
Wood carvings range from $1-$75+
Jewelry ranges from $3-$120+
Soapstone animals $1+ Soapstone chess sets: Up to $100 and more
Basically, you can spend as little or as much as you wish for your souvenirs. A wide range of sizes and quality is available.

Because you are a tourist, you probably won't be able to make any great coups in bargaining, but you don't have to pay top price everywhere you go either. You'll still get good prices on goods made in East Africa, so enter the bargaining situation in a spirit of fun, and be prepared to spend some time arriving at a price. Bargaining is an occasion for good-natured give and take. Buying does not simply fill material and economic needs; it fills social needs as well.

Photographing People
People in different cultures have different ways of responding to cameras. There is a true story, for instance, about Navajo Indians in the southwestern part of the United States. A teacher one day asked a group of school children to draw pictures of the tourists who frequently visited their reservation. Most of the children drew pictures of the visitors with cameras where their heads should have been. Reactions to being photographed may depend on religious beliefs, on how people perceive the motives of the photographer, on the degree that people value their privacy, and on previous experiences with photographers. There are also considerable differences in attitude among people within the same culture. Think of some of your own friends or family members, for example, who are camera shy.

Some people in East Africa have an aversion to being photographed. They may feel that their privacy is being invaded, that they are in some way being looked down upon, or that religious tenets (for instance, in the case of Muslims) are being violated. Other people, such as the Maasai, normally expect payment in return for being photographed. The Maasai have become in recent years the object of a seemingly fathomless quest for the exotic. Film crews and tourists have taken the place of the old trading caravans that were required to pay a tribute to cross Maasailand.

All this may sound as if it's better to simply leave the camera gear at home, or at least forget about photographing people and stick to scenery and wildlife. For some visitors that might be the best advice. Others of us cannot accept such a fate, and in fact there should be few problems if you are discreet.

One of the difficulties in photographing people is simply being too conspicuous. When the camera comes out, everything stops. Hardly a way to get candid shots of life around you. There are a few tricks of the trade that can help. One is to use long telephoto lenses and photograph people only at a distance. It is also useful to use a waist-level viewfinder or a camera such as the Rolleiflex, so that you do not seem to be pointing the camera directly at someone. You may even want to invest in a special mirror attachment that makes it look as if you are photographing straight ahead while in fact you are photographing to the side. These techniques can help to give you more candid and realistic pictures.

The best technique, however, is simply to develop a sensitivity to the particular people you want to photograph and to the situation. Think in terms of "public" and "private" areas. In general, the more touristy a place, the more public it is, and the easier it is to take photographs without invading someone's privacy. Beyond the obvious tourist attractions, however, it is often difficult to determine which kind of area you're in. Restaurants, shops, and streets may seem to be public areas, but for photography they may not be. People are prepared for contact in such places and may readily accept you as an individual, but may not be prepared to be photographed. The more you learn about where and when you can use your camera without causing disruption, the more you learn about your host culture. Use your camera sparingly outside of tourist places, until it becomes clear that you are accepted. Usually it is important first to establish a base and get to know people personally.

Tour guides often play an important, and sometimes awkward, role in regard to photography. Professionally, they are obliged to please the tourists. But they may also have social obligations to communities that do not want to be photographed indiscriminately.

At the other extreme, you may be led into a situation in which you are expected to pay something in return for taking pictures. Avoid paying money. A much better form of payment is to give your subjects a photograph of themselves. A camera that delivers instant prints, such as a Polaroid, serves as a good rapport builder.

Gifts and Trips
Gift giving is a common thing in East Africa. Africans are generous, and it is a part of their tradition of hospitality. They do genuinely appreciate receiving a gift from someone, especially a friend or acquaintance. Receiving a gift from a perfect stranger, however, is something different. Sometimes tourists take along items as give-aways to help establish some kind of rapport with people. Pens, T-shirts, or other things are offered as a kind gesture. This may be acceptable in some situations and will be appreciated, but some people feel that this is condescending and is not a good influence on children, who will come to expect hand-outs from "rich tourists." It is wise, therefore, to be discreet about giving gifts to someone you don't know.

Tips are expected in some situations, and in others they are not. Often the service charge is included in the hotel or restaurant bill. Check to make sure. Gratuities are an important source of income to driver-guides, who are generally underpaid for the responsibility they have. Tipping occupies a gray area in the value system of many East Africans. Some recognize that the waiter or driver-guide needs them to make a decent living. Others regard it as a nuisance, saying that it encourages service people to pay more attention to more affluent tourists than to locals. It is not something that is resented, but it sometimes crops up in the local "letters to the editor."

Customs, Courtesies, and Common Sense
The members of a society have their own ways of being courteous and respectful, and it takes some time before a visitor can be socially at ease and can communicate ideas and feelings. Changes are constantly taking place, and differences often occur within a country, so it is difficult to prescribe any hard and fast rules of conduct. The following guidelines, however, may help ease your transition as a visitor and help you to proceed on your own. Some of them are not particular to East Africa, but may have more importance there than they do in your own culture.

Visiting: When visiting someone's home, you will be greeted warmly, then asked to sit down. There will be additional greetings, often by each member of the host family. Start conversations with small talk. East Africans appreciate humor and openness. Questions should be indirect and tactful, however; avoid being too inquisitive or blunt.

Always offer a seat to someone who is visiting you, whether in a public or private place. Before beginning a conversation with guests, it's polite to ask them if they would like something to drink.

Language: Learn proper forms of address and greeting. Avoid using the word "native," which in formerly colonial countries has a negative connotation. Use the words "African" or "Kenyan" or "Tanzanian" rather than "black," "colored," or "Negro."

Eating: It's not considered polite to eat while walking on the street, nor is it polite to eat in front of others without asking them to join you. In restaurants, getting a waiter's attention through eye contact rather than hand gestures is preferred. Waiters appreciate, and will probably give better service to, someone who gives them some friendly attention. Tips should be around 10 percent of the total bill.

Time: Time is loosely structured in East Africa. Don't expect meetings to start precisely on time. Being half an hour late is not considered unusual. Part of that is due to traditional attitudes, and part stems from the fact that transport and communication services are not as reliable in East Africa as they are in more developed countries, where "time is money." As in some other cultures, people in East Africa will say "tomorrow" without literally meaning it; they really mean "soon" or "as soon as possible." Expect to wait longer than usual for things, such as postal and banking services.

Gestures: To get someone's attention, don't motion with a single finger; use all your fingers while holding your hand palm down. A sincere smile is always welcome. Indicating a person's height is usually done with the hand pointed vertically rather than horizontally. Sometimes men who are friends walk hand in hand; this is done out of friendship and has no sexual meaning.

Traveling: Always carry small change. Bargain for city or water taxis, but not for other forms of transport. East Africans are hospitable, but there are people in any country who are ready to take advantage of strangers. Don't change money, for instance, with a person who promises a special rate; use only banks or hotels. Keep valuables out of view, and don't carry or leave them in accessible places, especially in crowds.

Dress and Personal Appearance: Suits should be worn by men for formal business meetings. When in any city, don't wear swimsuits anywhere but at the pool. Women should dress with some modesty in public. When traveling by local transport or visiting rural areas, dress conservatively but informally. Nude or topless sunbathing is not considered proper in East Africa.

Special thanks to Dave Blanton of Voyagers International for providing this material.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »