7 Lessons I Learned While Living In Africa
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7 Lessons I Learned While Living In Africa

I tried to learn them so you won't have to.

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7 Lessons I Learned While Living In Africa
Sharlene Hayton

Moving to a new state can be nerve-wracking. Moving to a new country can be scary. Moving to another continent on the other side of the world can be… terrifying? Yes, terrifying.

But also, completely exhilarating. Moving to Malawi and traveling in Africa taught me more about the world than a textbook ever has and more about myself than a personality test ever will. I have to preface by saying I learned about 999 thousand more things than these, but I don’t have the patience to write all that and I’ll take a wild guess nobody would take the time to read that.

While reading about the things I learned will never take place of you going out and seeing places for yourself, it might give you something to consider as you travel on your own, especially in Africa.

1. Africa is as diverse a place as they come.

The amount of times I heard it asked, (and frankly used to be guilty of asking too) “How’s Africa?” to those living abroad is a pretty high number. It seems so normal till you flip the table and hear someone ask you in return, “How’s North America?” To which the only answer is, well, diverse. You can’t classify a whole continent in a sentence. Some countries in Africa are doing pretty well for themselves. Some are in the midst of war. Some are on the brink of government overhaul. And yes, some countries are experiencing hunger like many of us have never known. Yet each country has its own culture and landscape and people. Each country has its own history and strengths and weaknesses. Each country deserves to be recognized for what it is. Africa is so much more than the vague classifications we too often give it!

2. Making an effort to learn the local language is essential.

Wherever you go, make an effort. The immediate change in demeanor of those I interacted with when I learned to greet in Chichewa was so palpable. Walking down the road, I could often feel the stares on me as I would approach, but if I greeted those I passed in the traditional greeting, most often they would visibly relax and smile at me while responding. The walls that come down when you show people you are making an effort to meet them on their level are astounding. With the simple act of learning to say, “How are you,” you can begin to reach people so much more effectively. But by all means, do not let it stop there! As long as you are in a new place, keep learning. You wouldn’t believe the other benefits it brings! (Ok maybe you would… communicating with people is always a necessity. Grocery stores? Gas stations? Restrooms?) Yup. If you have to start somewhere, though, start with hello.

3.Time is not always “of the essence.”

You may have heard this one before, but in my time in Malawi, true to what I’d been warned, I learned to not live by a clock. (And not just because my watch died in the first month!) Any time my party or I were in a hurry, you can guarantee something went wrong or something held us up. The lesson? Stressing about it never once changed our situation. So, you’re going to be late sometimes. And while it can be frustrating, it can’t be changed. You can try to plan ahead and try to account for that if it’s a job interview or you’re picking someone up from somewhere, but when things slow down against your will, take a breath. Enjoy the extra moments of time gifted to (forced on?) you.

4. Volunteerism isn’t always a good thing.

This may sound strange coming from someone who spent seven months doing just that, but it’s an important issue to look at. I’ve heard it said plenty of times that privileged westerners should go on at least one mission trip to “show them how good they have it.” Now, while those who go may have much better motives for going than that, perpetuating the mentality that one should go for such self-centered reasons is, I believe, harmful to those on the receiving end of the aid. Volunteering to ease a guilty conscience from privilege, or as an excuse to work hard for 3 days then vacation for 7 without feeling guilty, or to prove that we aren’t racist, or to get a feeling for what it’s like to be “poor,” aren’t perhaps the most healthy objectives.

Now, I am struggling to write this because my first mission trip I ever went on was an amazing experience. Truly amazing. But looking back, I wonder if I really helped those I said went to help, or if my time there mainly just benefitted me? This really isn’t a discussion that can be summed up in a paragraph, so I guess I’ll just say this: if you plan to volunteer somewhere, really research it. Research what you’re doing and what the immediate and lasting effects will be of your work. Will you be taking valuable job opportunities away from those in the community or will you be providing a skill that isn’t available to them?

Will you be making lasting and quality relationships with those in the community you go to or will you be simply hopping into their lives, and then after you’ve gained their trust and love, hopping out again with no intent to maintain contact? ( Especially consider this when you are going to be with kids. The last thing you want is to just be another person that left and forgot them.) And lastly, make sure you believe in the mission you are going to accomplish. Make sure you believe in its relevance and its impact. Volunteerism is a great mission, and I believe an important one, but used carelessly it can do more damage than good.


5. Not all cultural staples are excusable just because that’s how things have “always been.”

When I got to Malawi and as I saw some of the surrounding countries, I was terrified of ever having a criticism for fear of being labeled ethnocentric. I was hyperaware of how anything I said could come across that way, and the last thing I wanted was to perpetuate the idea that Americans think their way is the only way. As it turns out, though, sometimes that mindset can turn into a crutch to turn a blind eye to real problems. If you ever need an example, consider that cannibalism used to be accepted in some cultures. Does that make it right? Nowadays it’s considered a taboo practice. Likewise, domestic violence is unfortunately pretty common. Cultural norm or not, it shouldn’t be an accepted practice. Sometimes it’s ok to take a stand against norms that are rooted in harming others. While culture should be preserved, the harmful aspects of any culture should be analyzed and potentially phased out.

6. Bartering has more to do with my pride than anything else.

Bartering is not my strong point. Nor is it something I greatly look forward to doing. The people pleaser in me doesn’t like to even potentially create an uncomfortable situation, but at the same time, I hate being cheated and feeling like someone outsmarted me. Also, I’m forever searching for discounts! This created an interesting dynamic for me as I tried to barter during market over food, fabric or the occasional clothing shopping spree. It seemed so important for me to barter the price of a shirt down from 500MK to 300MK, or whatever the price difference was between the stated price and the price I wanted.

I always felt that I had to barter them down because me showing up at market with blonde hair and pale skin meant I was not a local and thus, I was graciously given the inflated price. Always. Super awesome, right? But Let me break it down a different way. Do you know what the dollar equivalent is of 200MK? Less than $0.50. I was literally bartering over pennies. And for what? So I had to pay a bit more than everyone else, but I was not in any danger of starvation or losing my home. My bartering anxiety was purely based on my own pride. At some point, I had to understand that and learn to stop talking, pay a few dollars more (if that), and remain thankful.

7. Traveling can be scary, but that’s exactly why we should do it.

Before I left home, don’t judge me, but even the thought of flying international by myself was daunting. I’d never navigated a layover/flight change before, least of all one in a foreign country. What if I missed my flight, then what? How would I contact anyone for help? I didn’t know what would greet me when I got off the plane in Blantyre, Malawi, but somehow, I made all my flights, survived my layovers, (even the one in Addis Ababa) and when I reached my final destination I was met with love, and the experience that followed (with plenty of other new experiences that would have terrified me before now) was absolutely the best experience of my life. And guess what? I’m so much better off for it now. My confidence has grown and my love for travel has, too. Not to say nothing ever went wrong – things definitely did occasionally, but I survived. Don’t let the fear of what could go wrong while traveling stop you from attempting it, because you could miss out on the best experience of your life!

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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