comment 1

Making friends – my travel tips for West Africa

A couple weeks ago Erik Hershman of White African wrote a great blog post of 15 Travel Tips for Africa, a response to NYT’s columnist Nick Kristof’s travel tips, that, though intended to be helpful, might reinforce stereotypes about the dangers of international travel.

Between Erik’s thoughts and the great comments that follow, there’s a lively conversation and vision of travel – in Africa and elsewhere – that emphasizes flexibility, ingenuity and friendliness.

Reading his post and comments reminded me of my personal ideas on the key things to keep in mind while traveling, particularly drawing on my experiences living in Bamako, Mali. I wanted to repost those tips here, as in many ways they’re really just anecdotes from Mali/the tricks I keep up my sleeve to charm everyone from babies to elders. Most of these tips are universal, but I specify West Africa because the details are the ones that worked for me there. What has worked for you in the countries and places you’ve grown to love?

Shout-out to Patrick Meier for also emphasizing the importance of making friends. From my comment on Erik’s tips:

Babies love watching the Zabanchi (from my Flickr stream)

Babies love watching the Zabanchi (from my Flickr stream)

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: When learning new languages or traversing cultural boundaries, nothing will take you further than failure. If you want to learn how to greet someone in the local language (and you should), the mistakes along the way will be well worth it.

Dance, or, don’t be afraid to let others laugh at your expense: What I’ve learned is that a little self-deprecation goes far in making friends and thwarting would-be-detractors. In Mali, my host family/neighbors loved to watch me dance the “Zabanchi,” which I learned at a street dancing party. I looked ridiculous, and they loved it. Laughter’s the best way to make friends. And friends are the best way to experience a new place.

Eat with your hands: This might not apply in all African countries, but if you’re visiting someplace where folks eat with their hands, you should try it too! I have Bangladeshi friends who swear the food tastes better this way, and in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, it will show respect and a willingness to embrace local culture rather than impose your own. And, if you’ve yet to master the art of eating millet porridge or sauce and rice out of your palm, then you’ll give your hosts a good laugh to boot.

(A tip for female travelers) Go one further on marriage proposals: Yes. If you look like you have a foreign passport, you will get marriage proposals. Sometimes it can be annoying, but I never found the would-be-suitors to actually be threatening. So I developed a response that became a delightful conversation starter. “Sure, but you might have to be husband #2 or 3.” Thus ensues a conversation about local norms that is playfully subversive and nonthreatening. In much of Muslim West Africa, polygamy is practiced, and men can have up to four wives. Rather than saying no (what is expected) when asked to be married, or condemning local practices, I merely threw men off their guard and expectations with my response. Their response usually went something like this:

– Man: But women can’t have multiple husbands!
– Me: Sure they can! We can have up to four.

By the end of the conversation, I never had a man who still wanted to marry me (since I insisted on the multiple husbands) but I did find that they were willing to have a real conversation with me and not just view me as a stereotype, green card or intruder.

(A tip every traveler should follow) Question your own stereotypes: Merely writing some of them down, or, if you’re going on group travel, doing a group exercise on this, is invaluable. We all have them. If you’re willing to admit them to yourself, you’re much more likely to abandon them when you come face to face with proof that there’s more to things than you previously thought.

So, I end my tips with a salute. Erik, I think you’ve done a great job at debunking some of the stereotypes that Kristof’s column unfortunately props up. Africa’s merely the oldest and one of the most ecologically/anthropologically diverse continents on the planet. The tips you’ve recorded and collected include ones that are specific to a place or a climate, but the others – about making friends and traveling smart – are applicable everywhere.

Finally, one tip I forgot to add in my comments but that will take you further than any other act I know: Smile.

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