I spent almost 5 years working in Africa. My work took me to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar, Zambia, Malawi, Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa and I topped the list with holidays in a few other countries like Mauritius, Morocco, Egypt, Namibia and Botswana.
These are some observations and realisations from my time interacting with locals, from the senior executives at my client to the regular laymen and women (taxi drivers, shop assistants, hotel staff, etc.)
1. Malaria hits everyone
Even the most educated and successful people I interacted with had caught malaria a few times. In fact, many of my clients in well paid jobs were often off work because they were sick with malaria. The disease is widespread and it causes 700k deaths a year topping the list for reasons to die in Africa. Money can help with protective measures but if you are living in a high risk area it is very likely that you will suffer several episodes throughout your life.
2. Some African countries are rich by GDP per capita standards
According to the CIA World Factbook, Botswana at $16k, Gabon at $19k and Equatorial Guinea at $21k, are relatively rich countries primarily thanks to natural resources like diamonds and oil. However, their social inequalities mean that GDP per capita figures mask a huge disparity in wealth. Poverty is very present despite the high GDP rank.
3. Animistic beliefs complement the big religions
Most countries in Africa are very religious but nimist beliefs are almost always present and strong. Regardless if the majority official religion is Muslim, Orthodox or Christian animistic and traditional beliefs are widespread. Almost every family, even those educated and wealthy, have superstitions and traditions that have evolved from traditional African takes and magic. Many believe that both the physical and spiritual worlds are linked and that souls and spirits co-exist. Modern religions have not eliminated but rather complemented the local traditions and practices
4. Africa is very diverse, all 54 countries are very different
From the Muslim and conservative north to the unique Indian-cum-French Madagascar and through the white South Africa, the Pre-historical Ethiopia, the heritage rich Sudan and the developed but tribal Namibia, Africa is a vast and extremely diverse continent. No country is the same. There are over 2,000 languages spoken and over 1 billion people living there, a few times the population of Europe. And just like Europe, each country is significantly different. In the West, we make the mistake of thinking about Africa as a whole and unique region when it is actually a continent with disparaging cultures.
5. It can get really cold
When you think about Africa, the warmth of the desert and the tropics will make you think of heat immediately. Africa has recorded the hottest temperatures in the world but not all the continent is around the equator. Both Northern and Southern Africa have countries which experience winter. My winter in Johannesburg was bitterly cold. Crisp clear sky days threatened with cold wind and low temperatures. In the North, Egypt and the rest of the Maghreb also experience very cold winters so don’t forget to pack your coat if you are visiting in the less crowded months.
6. Every country has a staple food but they are all different
I love all sorts of carbohydrates. I love rice, cassava, green banana, potatoes, beans, lentils, anything that is generally used as a meat filler. I’m a carbohydrate lover. In Africa, I enjoyed a feast. Each country had its own variation of the king of staples. East Africa has ugali, Uganda has matoke, Ethiopians eat injera, a bitter spongy flat bread that serves as plate and as cutlery. In Morocco you can eat couscous, in Egypt and Sudan, flat breads and beans and in Sudan and in the Mediterranean coast plenty of potatoes. West Africa eats cassava and yams which you will also recognise in Latin America, rice and other legumes are very ingrained (pun intended!) as well. So although the weather and vegetation can make some regions have similar food types (for example East Africa, or Northern Africa) the staples are varied.
7. Africa has incredible islands and beaches too
Africa has some of the most beautiful beaches and islands. The Nosy Be archipelago in the North of Madagascar has incredibly beautiful uninhabited islands, crystalline waters and fluffy white sand beaches. Mozambique, another rising star in the luxury and exclusive resort arena, is already well known for its exclusive and isolated islands which rival any of the well known destinations. Off the Coast of Tanzania not only Zanzibar has beautiful beaches but escape the now well-known Spice Island to the lesser known resorts in Pemba or Mafia and you will feel like you’ve landed in paradise. And don’t forget the Mediterranean coast in the north or the Red Sea for those romantic Roman and Egyptian culturally rich journeys. Even Sudan has magnificent if completely empty beaches.
8. Sometimes, airports, wildlife and cities blend in
I loved landing in Kenya every week. Nairobi is surrounded by a National park full of wildlife. This is not a zoo, this is a proper park where lions, giraffes and zebras among other wildlife, roam freely. What’s the best about it? You can spot giraffes from the plane when landing or take a safari at 6am before going to the office. We spotted lions hunting, chasing their prey from the comfort of our car, then headed to work. And, because it a very accessible park, you can use any car, so the same driver who used to take us to the office took a detour and drove us through the park.
9. You need to be armed with patience
When I started working in Africa I was used to Spain’s efficiency and that is not to say a lot, but when dealing with anyone in Africa I had to adjust my expectations and the way I dealt with situations. I quickly realised that airport immigration decides to stamp your passport whenever they are done with the gossiping with their colleagues; that arriving first did not necessarily mean getting your passport first – sometime passports that were sorted first come out last as they were piled when received; at restaurants getting the order you asked for is a bit of a roulette – be prepared to take anything because re-ordering could take you another half hour; Despite all this I do believe that this made me a better person, more forgiving and more accepting of mistakes and shortcomings. I also realised that the sooner I learned to live with this new concept of time the sooner I would be happier and it has continued with me till today.
10. Africa is fascinating
I could never have enough. I went on safaris, I met new and interesting people all the time, I spotted all sorts of wildlife, I tried new foods, I peered into strange and exotic cultures, I learned about different cultures, I marvelled at the colourful clothing, I smiled at the rhythmic accents and I fell in love with the continent. Africa really is a fascinating place and, if you give it a chance to show its true colours by steering away from just going on safari, you will be able to unwrap layers of fascinating cultures and ways of life.