I get it. “Africa” is mysterious and enticing to those who have never been there – who have only viewed the continent (yes, it is a continent, not a country) through sensationalized narratives written by television and movie producers. And of course, there are certain eccentricities to be found, just as there are in any geographical region, among any culture – yes, even (or especially) American culture.
But before you head off to Africa, here are a few tips:
1. Learn the name of the country you’re going to and where it is on the map.
This is pretty basic, but you would be surprised at the number of people who go to “Africa” with no idea of where they’re actually going.
2. Read up on the culture and history of the people you’ll be visiting.
Remember, not only is Africa not a country, but the country you’re visiting isn’t just a place. It’s not even primarily a place. It is a people. And the people who live in that place have a storied history that is likely much longer and more complex than yours (unless you trace your ancestry back to the people of this region). Taking the time to learn a bit about the culture and history of the people will not make you an expert in how to “fix” their problems (don’t start that), but it will give you some perspective on historic struggles, modern advancements, and their unique contribution to global society.
3. Stop talking. Listen.
More times than I care to recall, I’ve run into a zealous first-timer (or someone who hasn’t even visited yet) who exclaims “I just love Africa!” I always try to be kind, because I know this person is coming from a good heart, but inside, I’m asking questions like, “Really? What is it that you love? What nation or tribe are you so connected with? Which cultural group really resonates with you? What experiences have you had on the continent that have helped you develop this deep conviction?”
“Oh, you just like looking at brown babies and giraffes on Nat Geo?”
Stop talking. Stop trying to share your immense knowledge. Stop being patronizing to a group of people whose deep culture you can’t even begin to understand. Instead, listen. Listen to the stories, old and new. Listen to the mythology and the history. Listen to the elderly, the middle aged, and the young. Try to wrap your mind around how ancient and modern meld together in these societies. Stand in the modern urban landscape and take in the sounds. Then stand in a rural village and do the same.
Whatever you do, just stop talking.
4. Watch this video, pay attention, and learn.
5. If you’re going on a missions trip, read Missions Unmasked.
My book, Missions Unmasked, has been used by missions teams far and wide as a precursor to their short-term missions trips. In the book, I try to peel back the layers of what missionary life looks like. If you’re working with or visiting a long term cross-cultural worker or missionary, please read this book before you go, then prepare to have real conversations with your missionary friend about the side of their life that they almost never put on display.
6. Be encouraged
Look, I’m glad you want to go to Africa and see animals and hold babies and do some good in the world. You’re starting from a good place. Just take care to be a learner in this new environment. Learn about the lives of the people you meet. Discover not only your differences, but your similarities. Reframe your perspective to move away from a colonialist narrative. You can do it! I believe in you. (Did you watch the video yet?)