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

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!

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  1. Kat says

    This is interesting Mark. I remember reading something about how various hand gestures are different where you go. Here, many hand signals are the same as that in most western countries so it isn’t much of a hassle. While it’ll be difficult to remember most of these, it’s better to know a few than make a major mistake.

    Also, the gesture to call someone is similar to Japan, at least, as far as I know. :)

    • says

      Even though the people are accepting if you make a cultural mistake, it’s really appreciated if you can know a few things before hand. Cool, I didn’t know that about Japan, thanks for sharing!

      • says

        Gotta watch out for that “thumbs up” part. Haha. And thanks for the tip on eating with your hands. I’m pretty good at it, but I do use the left too, especially when shelling seafood and the like.

      • says

        Nothing great about that 😉
        That’s is tradition of a people and all human races do differ in many ways.
        Variety of life, right?
        A European would typically eat his club sandwiches with his bare hand rather with fork and knife.
        We humans on this planet…across races need to own up to the variety that nature or the Creator has bestowed upon us and we didn’t have the power of choice.

  2. Guru says

    I’d like to add one major one. No matter how full you are, accept when offered food/ or a drink. You can ask for a little potion/request to be served in a saucer if you are that full… but take a few bites if you can. People will love you for that. If you have to turn down the offer, give a long meandering excuse of how much food you already and promise to eat next time. Never say “No, thank you”.

      • says

        We found something similar in India, which was really hard because everyone kept offering Kali tons of food! He’s tall and skinny, so a lot of the people we visited made it their personal mission to fatten him up, lol.

        At first he would try to politely refuse, but once he realized it was kind of rude (and, well, that most folks were really persistent) he just kept eating.

        • says

          Oh wow! At first that does sound great, but meal after meal, it might get to be an overwhelming overabundance (though it would taste amazing). The value of hospitality in some cultures is really incredible!

  3. John in France says

    This is really interesting. The differences between countries always amazes me. I liek something as simple as “Hello and Handshake” – so easy!

      • says

        Your hints I would say would suffice generally for Africa but let your readers know that even within a country like Nigeria, the cultural orientations of various ethnic groups therein are varied.

        My point, Africa and its nuances can’t be generalized.

        But I love your spirit.

  4. says

    Really great post Mark. I experienced all of these in Africa in some way or another. I love the African concept of time and their sense of community. Travelling in Africa brought about some of my most amazing memories. The people we met and spent time with as a result, were just incredible. I felt I was part of a happy and loving community each time. Despite the fact that we were all sitting on each others laps with bike handle bars up our butts there was much laughter, sharing and looking after one another.
    I think my culture has had too much personal space so they don’t know how to get along with others or control their emotions in public

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Caz!
      You are right, the concept of personal space and belongings has such a different perspective in Africa, where possession are often communal and community is so important. I think all cultural values and traditions throughout the world have their strong points and weak points as well.

  5. says

    Mark, AWESOME tips! I think I have learned more about Africa from you than any other person. These are great cultural insights into Africa and really appreciate this. I think it’s good to know this stuff before we go because dealing with different cultures, we can learn that doing things differently that may make us uncomfortable is not intentional or ill will on the part of others.

    • Mark Wiens says

      Wow, appreciate it Jeremy! You are right, just a brief education about some of the more important cultural values of any country, can be a huge benefit for traveling to another country. It can make locals feel more comfortable to meet you and open doors for further opportunity with travel!

  6. Sheila Africa says

    HI there!
    Allow me 2 add the following: Don’t expect Africans to look you in the eye as it is considered to be rude. Problem is, in other cultures it is interpreted as a sure sign of dealing with a dishonest person…
    And if you call a man by his surname he will love it! Just remember that in any country you have many subcultures and what is good manners for the one group is often quite the opposite for the next group IN THE SAME COUNTRY, such as South Africa! Very confusing indeed.
    I just love living in Africa so I invite you to check out the following: http://n24.cm/fBmCJO and http://n24.cm/eTmyl9 Enjoy!

    • says

      Hi Sheila,
      Thanks for the comment and contributing some information. Yes, good point about the eye contact. In many parts of the world, it would be considered not paying attention, yet in parts of Africa the direct eye to eye contact is definitely disrespectful. Good point to add! Are you from SA, or do you just live there now?

  7. Sereah says

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, e.g. promote Americans’ understanding of other cultures. And some of these observations certainly ring true.

    That said, Africa has 52 different countries, each with its own distinctive culture and values. To say they’re all exactly the same is at best lazy writing, and at worst perpetuating some unfortunate stereotypes.

    • says

      Hey Sereah,

      I understand that this article is quite general, and that Africa is comprised of an immense amount of cultural variations and diversities. These values however are not overly specific, they are general customs that hold true for much of Africa.

      I by no means say that cultural values in all countries of Africa are the same. The purpose of this article is to explain a few characteristic values that are similarly practiced throughout the continent, not to go into infinite detail about a certain tribe and their rites of passage.

      • Gert says

        I have to agree with Sereah, it’s daft to generalise ‘African’ culture. I have lived in various parts of Africa for years, and never come across some of these, and seen others proved false.

        It’s a bit like saying ‘Europeans enjoy opera’ – probably some do, it probably varies by country, but to generalise makes it non-sense.

        Avoid saying things like ‘silence is an African value’ – it ends up sounding patronising. “Those Africans! What are they like!”. There’s not really such thing as an African. I’m in Central Africa now, and in this tiny village there are Muslims (with different views on half these things), Christians, Fang plus 4 or 5 other tribes, and people from 2 or 3 different countries, all who varying on many of these points.

        That said, the general politeness things – warm hello with hand shake, respecting older people, not being negative etc etc – are always good things to do where ever you are!

  8. Laurel says

    Great list! This will be very useful for people traveling to Africa to avoid unintentionally offending someone. I never would have guessed ‘silence’ as a value, very interesting.

  9. says

    This is a really interesting list– I’ve always been interested in the different cultural values from around the world. Were you aware of these things before you went? Or did you learn them while you were there? Do they have a high tolerance for tourists who are unaware of these customs? Thanks for the great read!

    • says

      Thanks Michael! I grew up in Africa for about 12 years, starting at the age of 5. So at that point, it was more my parents that I’m sure did not have too much of a knowledge of these cultural values. For myself, I grew up and learned them while I was there.

      Yes, related to the fact that public display of negative emotions is often not shown, people do have a high tolerance for people who are unaware of these customs. I think what I would say is – a lot of these things will be accepted by locals (if you don’t know), but they will enjoy and be impressed if you blend in a little better, and I think that can improve the travels of anyone!

      Thanks again for reading this article Michael!

  10. says

    Very nice post I can attest to these my wife is from Africa and they get on me about eating with the wrong hand (im left handed) lol. Another is make sure you eat eat and eat some more if you a man that is.

  11. says

    Oops, actually my comment is supposed to be for your post about 33 photos (I opened some of your posts simultaneously and put the previous comment on the wrong post, LOL)

  12. Rebecca says

    Ha ha, TIME! That was the most frustrating thing for me when I was in Africa – no concept of the value of time! For someone like me who always arrives on time, it certainly was an adjustment… :-)

  13. rob says

    The personal space problem and lack of respect for time would drive me batty. When they sit down beside you on an empty bus, what do they do if you get up and move away, which would be my automatic reaction? Follow you like a puppy?

    I think if I didn’t get the food I ordered because they are “out” I’d tell them to take away what they brought and ask to see the menu again to pick something else, or just move on to another restaurant.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Rob! Yup, somethings can definitely be frustrating, but in the end we as visitors really need to adapt. I’ve asked them to take my food away before and re-order off the menu – you can definitely do that!

      • rob says

        I found even in Europe that personal space is smaller than we expect as North Americans, but with a little practice you can keep your space. I’m not sure I’d know how to deal with it in a 3rd world country (or continent) though. I hate being crowded, and it would be weird to be surrounded by poor people.

        Did you live there? Much of what you observed about food and conversation doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing one would experience as a traveler. Similarly the waving someone over or smacking/hissing thing, and establishing relationships. Probably important if you live there for some reason, but not so much if you’re a traveler.

        • says

          Hey Rob. Yah, I lived in Africa growing up as a kid, for about 12 years (but I’m originally from the US). I think personal space is one of the biggest differences between North American culture and African culture, and even to an extent with European and Asian culture. It can definitely be challenging to get used to!

          Will you be traveling to Africa sometime soon?

          • rob says

            I don’t have any africa plans. As a girlfriend of mine once said “Rob doesn’t do 3rd world countries”.

            I just found this posting in the typical link to link dance of the web, and found it odd and interesting.

  14. says

    Great post. It’s very important that people understand these when in Africa as you can make so many cultural boo boo’s if you dont. Number 9 about time is very important because if you remember that then the bus pulling off 2hrs late you wont get annoyed


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