The African way


I have a hard time with myself. I tend to be very critical. When you do something, do it properly and most importantly, do it efficiently. This makes life hard for the people around me and for myself as well. For years now I have been aware of this part of my character and I try hard to let go of it. Being in Africa gives me double feelings about the subject though.


I do not like to generalize, but I will in order to make my point.
Nothing, but really nothing seems to go in a way that I would expect or find normal. This can be said for some European situations as well of course, after all, what is normal? The African way however, goes to extremes. There is not a single day that goes by on which there is no situation where Antoine and I look at each other while sighing: `It is Africa`. This has been case, for example, with several ferries on which doors did not function and cars could not get off. On several occasions, we have seen people cleaning floors, carefully sweeping and mopping around every leg of the chairs, without ever considering moving the chairs over. A pizza Hawai being served with the announcement that they are out of pineapple when the food is already on the table, although you specifically ask about the pineapple when making your choice. Anyway, in most situations what is on the menu is not really what is available, not to mention what really ends up on your plate.
Today the manager of this rather fancy hotel that we are staying in in Kindia, said she would change euros for us while she was in town. We agreed to a rate that we minimally wanted to change for, wrote it on a piece of paper and she took off with our money. An hour later she came back, with our euros but without the Guinean francs. She had found a rate which was better than our minimum, but she had not changed it because she was not sure if we wanted it.
I do not want to claim that the European way is any better than the African one, but it is sure different. And for a critical European like me, somewhat difficult, that`s for sure.
I try to look though all of this, I try to see the bright side of this way of working, to see the benefits and the ways in which the African approach is as good as any other. But I cannot. I keep being confronted with inefficiency, lack of overview and ignorance. At the same time people complain about how difficult life is in Africa. How they do not have the means to build a life, how they do not have the knowledge. I get a little irritated during these kind of conversations, wondering why they are then sitting on this little bench all day long, hanging around without actually doing anything. With all these mangos, can you really not make jam and sell it by the side of the road, even if you have to use a wood burning fire? All this trash, can you really not collect it all and bury it or even burn it, in order to avoid ugly diseases?
Any building built by Europeans, either during colonialism or afterwards, degrades as soon as it gets into African hands. Windows are not painted, doors fall apart and as soon as the sink faucet is plugged it will never work again.
I do not know what irritates me more. The African way of handling life, of my ingrained response to it? I feel like I am discriminating by generalizing like I do, but over and over we run into this `African way`, whether it is the way they burn your food or clean a toilet. I guess it is okay to dislike it. Since I am in Africa, I will adapt to what is normal on this continent. I am only a guest. But I will fight the mentality of `oh we are so poor` and `give me this` and give me that`. If people are too stubborn to accept that they should not take a bath and wash their clothes in the same river as where they dump their trash and use the toilet, no `rich` European can save their lives. If they keep thinking money grows in trees in Europe like mangos do in Africa, will the mentality of doing nothing that could potentially make you tired ever change? Most Africans think that any white man can change their lives. We wave our magic wand and all their problems are solved. But in the end we all need to help ourselves. We need to work ourselves out of poverty. However it is needless to say that it is not easy for many Africans to succeed when there is no basic frame to build on, like education.
In Mansoa, Guinee-Bissau, we met a priest who told us about his parish. Before him there had been a white priest. He had a lot of friends and family back in Europe who were willing to donate money to the parish. When people were in need, they could come to the priest. One day the church had become much too small for the large community. The people went to the African priest and stated that they needed a new church. The priest thought it over and after several weeks he had good news for the community. During the Sunday morning mass he announced that they had the money to build a new church.
The crowd was ecstatic. Marvelous, there was enough money to build a new church. Soon they would not have to leave the doors open during the mass so that the people that did not fit inside the building would be able to take part in the ceremony. Wonderful, there was money. Where was the money, they asked the priest?
"The money is in your pockets". The crowd got silent. Very silent. They started yelling in agitation and the priest got into a big argument with the people in his parish.

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It took him a while, but the priest managed to explain to them that he was not a priest with European friends and family, that everyone has to climb up out of poverty on his own. He managed to get a group together that made a plan. Every member of the parish would pay a small, annual contribution, according to the level of their income. At the occasion of a baptism, a wedding or any other thing like that, their contribution would be checked.
Now they are building a church. Overall it will take several years before it wil be finished, but the people are proud. They are so proud. Nobody will ever damage what they built themselves, nobody will ever think `oh the priest will do that for me` just like that. They now have the confidence that they can pull it off. They can do it. I find this priest the smartest man I have met in Africa so far. Finally someone with absolutely no ’spaghetti brains’.

5 Reactions to: “The African way”

  1. 1 Uwe Rothe

    Fine to here from you again. It was a time ago since the latest update and I was awaiting some more storys. Now I am reading from my european chair, thinking about Africa and I have a feeling that you are condemn the african to much. For example: 1) houw could the manager of the hotel know about a better change rate when not able to calculate? 2) Sitting all day long doing nothing is maybe the only way to stay alive. If I like to paint my house than I go to the next market buy some paint– do they have a market next door and even the money? 3) Drinking the water which they polluted bevore? Here in the Netherlands everyone rides in a big car, if possible bigger than the one the neighbor has. But we all inhale the air we polluted before. So everthing is relative.
    And you are right, I think all these can be reduced to two simple facts: education and attitude.
    Hope that you find your best way in Africa,
    greetings from my lazy chair,

  2. 2 Dottie Ragouzis

    Your decision to come back to civilization is the best you could possibly make.I know there are a lot of very relieved people.
    Much love to you both.
    Dottie R.

  3. 3 Tony

    Interesting….. learned helplessness, or a culture of helplessness and hopelessness. I wonder what happens to those who do try to improve their own lives - to themselves or their improvements. It would be worth keeping an eye (or ear) out for those stories and examples.
    Enjoy the Nederlands. Love, Tony

  4. 4 sabine macwaters

    this is a root question every where, for each and every one of us, I think: can we have what we want by working for it and making the choices and priorities, or are we waiting for soemeone to hand it to us. I, too think education is a critical part of the answer, the education we start with from the time we are tiny. I also call this culture. Like teaching girls how to be equally capable as any other humans. Or teaching boys to cook and clean up… And so on forever!
    One trick is being willing to take these lessons inside ourselves.

  5. 5 Roger und Katja

    Hello Chantal and Antoine

    We are still following your tracks by reading your stories.
    It’s just incredible for us to see how far you allready got since we met you in Tarifa and Marocco - Congratulations to you!

    It allways gives us a different view of our own life, reading your stories about the people of those countries and how they are living in such different conditions. Thank you for that!


    Katja and Roger

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