Lessons learned: few simple rules to live in Africa

Blogpost by Federica Basadonne

Before coming to Africa for the first time I had a lot of expectations but nothing to compare them to. So I just had to be patient and be here to live it all on my skin.

The first time in a third-world country can be kind of intimidating, and it is essential to get comfortable in the environment before, say, being brought out to eat strange stuff (like worms) or sacrifice puppies to the voodoo gods. OK, kidding, at least for the puppies!
The language barrier can be really hard for volunteers when they first arrive here, even for those who have taken French classes. Being in a multilingual environment is really mind-broadening but often also a bit tiring. In the end, after weeks of awkward and weird conversations, you eventually learn that it isn’t just your standard French skills that are lacking, but also their kind of French and communication skills. And that’s the point when it stops being so frustrating and starts being kind of funny.
The cultural impact has naturally been quite strong and the word «adaptation» made the first position on our African dictionary. ”Mais, c’est l’Afrique!!”, people tell us everyday, and it is the most common way here to explain and justify all the bias and strange behaviors or customs we notice living in Bangui.
Taxis are the most common mean of transportation here, since not many people can afford a car, and they are usually pretty battered and stuffed to the brim with people. Think a ’89 Peugeot, cracked windshield, trunk held down with rope, loaded with cargo, with four people in the front and up to five or six in the back. Maybe even some more on the top, firmly holding to the big sacs of flower tied to the carrier. Not the most comfortable way to travel, and a definite chance of losing circulation in your limbs. Now imagine it swerving around the huge potholes in the road, the ones big enough to lose a goat in, right into the path of oncoming traffic, only to swerve back at the last moment.


At first it made me nervous, gripping to my teammates’ shoulders like a preteen watching a scary movie, then we tried the public buses, and I started loving taxis!!
In comparison, taxis are pretty luxurious. We took them to go up and down the roads to appointments and meetings and, luckily, always back home. Twenty people on a vehicle approved for nine, a window with a breeze (no window), pressed up against strangers, in intimate proximity. No complaints, c’est l’Afrique!

I can’t say there is any food that I didn’t really like, but that’s because I totally refused to eat the chenilles (caterpillars) and nobody had the heart to try gumbo, a substance that looks like green slime and which gives the impression to cause sickness in a culturally insensitive way. Meat with peanut sauce and leaves of amaranth and a strange mixture made with water and the flour of a plant called manioc didn’t scare us, we tried a lot of local traditional plates and we also enjoyed them a lot. Much of the street food consists of some starchy, play-doh-y substances and oily sauces, sometimes with chunks of meat or spices, and little sweet sesame balls and baked beignets, which are actually pretty damn good.
Also, eating with your hands seems to be surprisingly satisfying. On the more expensive side, some of us tried the antelope choosing from a very vast list of gourmandises between monkey, frog, boa snake, caiman, lizard, turtle, gazelle, warthog and many others, and it proved to be marvelous, especially when paired with a beer and a breath-taking view.
Potential travelers and worried parents should note that, had I not blithely ignored many of my travel doctor’s warnings, I wouldn’t have tried much of this stuff, and would have missed out on a lot. We even took a few unintentional sips of raw water bluntly raining on us from the gorgeous Boali falls during a wonderful trip. And we’re still here.
Other important information: be prepared to be stared at, and yelled at by kids and sometimes adults. Mudju!! Mudju!! It is the word to refer to white people, and kids like it a lot, they also like to be greeted, like adults, hands shaking and everything. It is also essential to do some «neighboring», taking time to know who lives nearby and making yourself be known. Community here is essential, as we’ve been told, just greeting and gently smiling makes a big difference!
Be prepared also to «discuter» (argue) a lot, or bargain about prices. Not only is it just what people do here, but everyone will try to charge you more because you’re white. Our local team-mates are really good at holding their ground while discuter-ing, and, as we found out, it is just better not to stand next to them while they’re in action. But trying it for yourself, it can be extremely satisfying to steadfastly refuse to pay a definitely high price for veggies and go home at the end with your shopping at bargained price plus a «cadeau»!
As we are experimenting trial and error is an essential part of any new work and experience. Usually in life, when we execute an idea for the first time, it kinda sucks. The important thing is to synthesize the knowledge gained during the process to refine the idea, and create a new-and-improved version.
Rather than being discouraged by your “failures,” listen closely and learn from them. Then build a new prototype. Then do it again. Sooner or later, we’ll hit gold.

Vastly different as the world’s cultures are, speaking to German millionaires, homeless Brazilians, Dutch fishermen and Filipino computer programmers, in their own languages, we are all incredibly alike where it matters. Everyone just wants validation, love, security, enjoyment and hopes for a better future. The way they verbalize this and work towards it is where things branch off, but we all have the same basic desires. We can relate to everyone in the world if we look past the superficial things that separate us.
People get their meaning in life from believing in things maybe we don’t. What an empty and boring world if everyone thought alike!!! Our local colleagues are enriching us with cultural ateliers on all sorts of subjects about their culture, lifestyle and supernatural beliefs, making us laugh but also giving us the possibility of understanding the perspective from which they build their entire look on the world. And starting from there many strange behaviors we noticed here suddenly fall into place. Like, if you find yourself in Central Africa, never, really never, forget to cover your beer glass when not drinking, if a fly falls in it and you don’t notice, you could cause the death of someone or even your own!!
And wear sunscreen, seriously. Protect your skin!!

I thought I knew it all back at home and that everything of importance can be found in books. But the truth is that the most important things in life are very hard to put in black and white.
When most of the world’s information is at our fingertips, a mouse-click away (if you’re lucky enough to get to some internet connection!), it makes it feel like we don’t need to experience any more. Movies, books, or living through someone else means we can apparently get the general gist of anything.
This is false. Experience is the greatest teacher of all. So, stop reading about or watching the world passively and start living it, this is the better lesson.

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