Note: These only represent my own experiences in Africa. I am not saying they are true for everyone who travels to Africa, nor should this post be interpreted as such.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to the beautiful continent of Africa twice in my life. I studied abroad in Ghana for six weeks in 2011, and I went on a mission trip to Uganda for two weeks in 2012 (and had an accidental layover in Rwanda for less than 24 hours).
I thought I knew everything about Africa before I went. I was involved with nonprofits that focused on African conflict, I could pick out almost any African country on a map, and I had several friends from Uganda. What else was there to know?
Well, a lot.
Here are the seven things I wish I knew before going to Africa. They’re my Africa Travel Tips, if you will.
1. White Savior Complex is real.
I didn’t learn this lesson until almost two years after my most recent trip to Africa. As I stated previously, prior to my trip to Ghana in 2011, I was involved with many nonprofits that focused on African conflicts. I was the girl in college who wanted to devote her life to “saving Africa.”
Imagine my surprise when I got to Africa and people didn’t need saving.
The main thing I wanted to do was volunteer in an orphanage. While I spent some time doing that, I realized something: I’m not really good with kids. It was really awkward for me. I didn’t know what to do with them. The most I interacted with the kids was when I brought out my DSLR camera and took selfies with all of the kids. Even then, you know what I was most excited about? Having an awesome profile picture showing me with a ton of cute African kids.
That Onion article? That was my actual mentality.
The most embarrassing part is that I still had this White Savior Complex when I went to Uganda. (I was going on a mission trip, after all.)
I was so excited to go back to Africa and save some more kids, at least for a week or two.
One day, we were repainting one of the three orphanages run by the nonprofit I traveled with. We were teaching the boys to paint so they could start their own business, which is one of the few things we did that I’m actually proud of. If a group goes to Uganda once a year to paint and hang out with the kids, nothing is really getting done. If one group goes to teach the kids how to paint while hanging out with them, they can begin to support themselves after we leave. Education is the only true way out of poverty.
Now for the embarrassing, white-savior-complex part of the story.
We were having lunch with the boys from the orphanage and the kids from the village were crowding around the front door watching us. The woman in charge of the trip didn’t let any of them come in to join us (despite the fact that we were there on a humanitarian trip…), and we naturally assumed they were starving.
They clearly weren’t just shocked by the color of our skin, which many had never seen before. They were obviously watching us because they were starving. We were in Africa, after all.
A few of us decided to give them some of our snacks because we didn’t need them as much as those poor Africans did. So I grabbed my camera and took a ton of photos, this one included:
And I was so proud of it.
I’m so embarrassed by myself. But I know that I’ve grown from the experience and can’t wait to return with a new perspective.
2. Culture shock and reverse culture shock are also real.
No matter how prepared you may feel, you’re going to experience culture shock. And believe it or not, you’ll experience it on the way back home, too.
My study abroad group in Ghana had a few days of orientation before we went out on our own, which was both a good thing and a bad thing. It was good because we got to know some of the customs (like not using your left hand, which was difficult for left-handers like me), but it was bad because they made it seem like every man in Ghana is a rapist or a mugger. This obviously isn’t true, but it dictated my mindset for the whole trip.
In Ghana, people don’t just hop in their car and go somewhere like we do in Michigan. You get on a tro tro or in a shared cab or walk. And man are tro tros intimidating. Hopefully you’ve learned the hand signals before trying to get on one, because they don’t stop and explain to you where they’re going. You get in and share tight spaces with a ton of strangers, and stops aren’t announced, so you have to know when to get off.
I had a meltdown one evening after getting on the wrong tro tro. It stopped at a massive market, so I had to figure out which one to get on to go back to a different market, then wait 20 minutes for it to fill up and leave. The entire time I was doubting my choice, imagining it would take me to another wrong location. When I finally got to the correct market, had to wait for a shared taxi to take home. Oh, and all of this was happening during a huge rainstorm. I got to my home-stay, fell onto my bed, and cried.
Adjusting back to American life wasn’t easy, either. Going to the grocery store was overwhelming, and I’m still not quite comfortable walking alone at night. It’s been three years.
3. Some things are okay to shrug off.
I don’t take it lightly when men cat-call at me. Then I got to Ghana, where cat-calling is the norm.
I really wish I would have been able to let this go more easily. The feminist in me yelled right back at the cat-callers (I even punched a guy in the shoulder in Kumasi in a fit of rage…), but it definitely brought my mood down. I wasn’t able to relax; I was always on edge, even when I was safely in my home-stay.
I blame part of this on the orientation we had at the beginning of the trip, but if I had been in more control of my emotions, I would have been able to enjoy my stay a bit better.
4. Research the country you’re going to so you don’t look like an idiot.
I thought I knew it all when I went to Ghana, so I didn’t research much before I went. This made me look like a huge idiot.
One of my classes was Ghanaian Politics Since Independence, which was basically a history of the political system since Ghana became an independent nation in 1957.
One day I was working on typing up my notes at the dining room table, and my host dad asked me what I was working on. I had a question about the notes, so I asked him if he had ever heard of “this Kwame Nkrumah guy.”
Kwame Nkrumah was the first president of Ghana. That would be like if an exchange student asked an American if they had ever heard of “this George Washington guy.”
If I had researched Ghana more (or at all) before going, I would have known that Kwame Nkrumah was incredibly important in Ghanaian history. Even if I still had a question about him, I would have at least known how to ask it.
5. Most modern-day technology exists there.
Want to know the first thing we did when we arrived in Ghana? We went to the mall and got cell phones.
While they were basic Nokia phones that are one step below flip phones, they allowed me to text and call my host family, people in my study abroad group, and even people back home. It was just as easy to find people selling prepay minutes for my Vodafone as it was to find people selling water.
I still connect with my host family on Facebook and Instagram, where my host mom posts her fabulous head wrap selfies. I had internet access almost the whole time I was there.
I knew there would be some technology, but I was very surprised at how much was available to me. If I had known I would be able to contact someone in the States whenever I needed, I wouldn’t have been nearly as stressed before the trip.
6. Not all African countries are alike.
I’m always the one who gets angry when people say or imply that Africa is a country. Little did I know I was acting like it was. Or at least that all of the countries that make up the continent of Africa were exactly the same.
Before studying abroad, I had an interview with my study abroad adviser. She told me to do some research about Ghana before the interview. I, of course, didn’t do that. I already knew all about Africa, remember? Wrong.
I was answering all of the questions based on my knowledge of Uganda. Which is on the other side of the continent. The cultures and histories are completely different. I was talking about how resilient Africans are, because they’re so positive in the face of conflict. What? There isn’t an ongoing conflict in Ghana. I was thinking about Uganda while she was asking me about Ghana.
I also remember thinking how cool it was that I was in Africa when South Sudan became a country. Guess what? No one in Ghana seemed to care. I wasn’t in South Sudan. Or anywhere near South Sudan. Just because they’re both in Africa doesn’t mean Ghana will have a big celebration for South Sudan.
It would be ridiculous to think that England has the same culture as France just because they’re in the same continent. Why did it seem normal to do the same thing with African countries?
7. Be respectful, even if you’re mostly among other Americans.
During my Ghanaian Music and Dance class, I acted very casually. All 14 students were Americans, while the instructors where all Ghanaian. For some reason I assumed this meant I could act like an American and ignore Ghanaian customs. This was so rude of me.
When we had breaks between dances, I put my hands on my hips. I was panting and sweating profusely because it was 90° Fahrenheit and incredibly humid, so I was just thinking about being comfortable. I didn’t think about being respectful. My hands were comfortable on my hips, so I put them there.
In Ghanaian culture, putting your hands on your hips is a sign of arrogance. I was insulting my instructors because I was too hot to care about etiquette. I figured I was with a ton of Americans, so Ghanaian customs didn’t matter. The Americans wouldn’t care, so what did it matter? I was completely ignoring the Ghanaians in the room, which wasn’t okay.
All of this being said, I’m extremely thankful for my time in Africa, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I evolved a lot as a person thanks to these experiences, and I can’t wait to go to another African country and have a new experience with these things in mind. I’m not sure where I will be going next (although I’ve got my eye on Botswana), but I’m excited for the journey.
Many thanks to my friends Fatima, Rachel, Taylor, Emily, and Kayli for brainstorming this list with me!
Do any of these things surprise you?