The Ten Commandments of Working in Africa

Road to Khor Angar 3

A CJTF-HOA POLAD wrote this when I was in IRT.  I forgot her name, but not her advice.  The rest of this post is a copy and paste of her words.  I should have written her name down, but I did keep a copy of her handout and scanned it to my files.

“Africa is a continent of immense cultural diversity. Generalizations about African culture can be inaccurate in specific cases. That said, many U.S. and international ‘Africa – hands’ in and outside their respective governments find these 10 commandments for working in Africa to be generally useful, in particular for those from Western countries.


I. First, establish your personal credentials. No business can be done until this is done.

a. Africans want to know what kind of a person you are and they want you to show respect for them – no matter their station in life.

b. Begin by following local custom; greet people in the local language depending on the time of day (Good morning, good afternoon, etc.); shake hands with everyone when you enter the room; recognize people by their names; ask about their families and their health. Do this every day and do it before you ask them to do something for you. And when you take your leave, ensure you say goodbye and at least make eye – contact with everyone when you do so.

II. Second, always keep in mind that you are not dealing with individuals alone, but rather with individuals enmeshed in an all-consuming system of family, group and reciprocal rights and duties.

a. When an African makes it, his family, his village and sometimes, it seems his entire ethnic group will descend upon him to share in the new good fortune. His house must be open and his pockets deep.

b. If an African tries to act like an American and say that he must save and invest (for himself and his immediate family) – he stops being an African and will be ostracized. His only option if he chooses this route is to emigrate.

c. An African cannot refuse to help a kinsman, and therefore will always be trying to get a cousin a job, a visa, etc. It is his duty.

III. Never say no. Always try to be helpful and explain.

a. Africans rarely say “no,” for the reasons adduced above. Therefore it is important to know how to recognize an “African no” (an evasive, non – committal reply that is less than a “yes” but not an outright “no”). If you simply say “no” each time you are asked for a favor, you will come off as uncaring, unconcerned and disconnected from the local web of relationships (i.e. irrelevant, not a player).b. But you cannot say “yes” all the time, so what to do? Do what Africans do. Listen carefully. Try to be helpful (not necessarily agreeing to the request) and explain yourself.

b. But you cannot say “yes” all the time, so what to do? Do what Africans do. Listen carefully. Try to be helpful (not necessarily agreeing to the request) and explain your

own constraints. Suggest alternatives. In short take your time to give an African No rather than a quick and easy (read: curt) Western No.

c. Sometimes, just being able to tell a kinsman that you have spoken to a big man on his behalf (the Ambassador, the CEO) does the trick. Try to allow your African friend to say that he has spoken to you; that an appointment has been arranged (but not necessarily the favor granted). The incremental progress that you facilitated is probably going to be followed through by using another channel, so it is ok to stand back once you have played the little part you were requested. This all takes time, but it’s worth it if you want to preserve your good standing.

IV. If you say “yes,” understand that you may be incurring subsequent responsibilities beyond your capacity or willingness to discharge. Always try to be helpful and explain.

a. Americans tend to want to “make friends” in a new environment. This is all to the good, but it is important to understand what real friendship means in Africa.

b. We tend to invite a couple (i.e. two persons) for dinner or drinks at a specific time, and when they don‟t show, we are miffed. In Africa, the most likely explanation is that someone from the village appeared on their doorstep at the last minute and they could not avoid being helpful. Sometimes, the African couple will show up two hours late, with the friends from the village – in the middle of your sit down dinner.

c. If you really want to be friends, you have to operate like the African couple did. Keep an open door, literally. Keep plenty of food ready to serve at all times. And loosen up your sense of privacy.

d. More importantly, if your desire to be helpful leads you to say “yes” too often, you are likely to find that you have become enmeshed in a web of African family problems ranging from a sick baby to the need to properly fund a funeral, to securing the education of a cousin.

e. It is, of course, possible to have real friends in Africa, but it is usually best to clearly define your limits. You are not the surrogate mother or father unless you want to be. And you do not have limitless resources, although it may seem that way too many of your friends.

V. When a usually intelligent contact suddenly becomes very dense and can’t seem to grasp a simple point – watch out. There is more involved than you are likely to be able to understand.

a. Often, someone, with whom you are working very closely and very effectively, will suddenly be unable to comprehend your point or fail to follow through on what seems to be an agreed course of action. All your persuasive abilities and persistence fail.

b. You have probably stumbled into something that is very threatening to your interlocutor. Your plan, while utterly sensible in Western terms and very likely to achieve its stated objectives, will undercut an important African power relationship, prevent kinsmen from taking advantage of some loophole which has been very profitable, or simply force your contact to play a role which is incompatible with his position in African society.

c. When this happens, you have to decide how important your objectives are and how much you can compromise, if at all. This is bottom line time. Two fundamentally different approaches to life and business are in play and someone is going to lose.

VI. Play your role. You are representatives of America. Africans will expect you to dress and play the part. They will play their roles to the hilt.

a. Often you will be invited to open-air events, in a village or a garden, or simply to a place where the air conditioning is not in top working order. If the event is important – like a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a dinner or cocktail party by invitation – or an event where there is a guest of honor, with speeches, etc. – DRESS UP. The Africans will be decked out in their most expensive and colorful attire.

b . If you don’t like to give speeches, toasts, impromptu remarks or other public gestures – LEARN. Public speaking, storytelling, good jokes, and social graces – all these are prized and practiced in Africa. As the guest of honor at any event, it will be part of your honor to be granted the opportunity to address the gathering, so you should always be prepared to “say a few words”.

c. Being open, accessible, and polite are all good attributes in Africa, but many Africans also like titles and other symbols of power. If you have a title, use it. Always carry plenty of business cards.

d. Serving American food is fine and you should be proud to show off our specialties (the spicier the better), but if you really want to throw a good party, include some African dishes and music – even if these are from a different African country to the one you are in.

VII. Most decisions in Africa are made by for ging a consensus, and all have to pass through m any hands and hurdles. This takes time, sometimes more time than you think you‟ve got. But decisions arrived at in this manner are rock – solid. Buckle in.

a. Sometimes because bureaucrats want a tip, sometimes because individuals want their power to be recognized, sometimes because others don‟t care about your project – your papers are likely to be lost in the clearance process, or the decision you need never seems to be made in the time frame you need it. Make lots of copies of your proposals. When one gets lost, pull out another and start over. The same applies for emails – file them carefully so that you can always resend a message that was mysteriously undelivered or deleted.

b. Even in the best of circumstances, it is unlikely that one person will be able to give you the go – ahead. Even the Head of State usually has to forge a consensus of his peers and key supporter s. Everyone who counts has to get a piece of the action, or it won’t get done. Sometimes, two opposing coalitions within the power structure are unwilling to compromise and nothing gets done. In such a case, you will need to be able to recognise the issues and identify for each side a winning proposition in order to gain support from both sides, albeit for differing reasons.

c. Your most precious asset will be someone, if you can find him or her, who can guide you through this labyrinth and, most importantly, can tell you when to hold’em and when to fold’em.

VIII. Africans are usually not racist or xenophobic. They are often nationalistic. Be prepared to endure criticism of American policy, society, and values. Give as good as you get, but be more prepared to agree to disagree rather than to stubbornly escalate the tensions, as the tendency to engage in pig-headed arguments will cause you to be isolated in terms of your social acceptability.

a. Don’t be put off by criticism. Africans love a debate, and they like being provocative. In the cities, pr ovocative might be an understatement. In the countryside, questions will always be polite, but provocative. Africans want to see what you are made of. They follow current events, and so should you if you want to keep up.

b. As in all societies, Africans have their share of stereotypes which miss the mark. They may have had or heard from someone who had a bad experience while visiting the U.S., but more likely they draw conclusions from American movies, TV programs and popular music.

c. Also as in all societies, individuals differ greatly among Africans. So be careful about distinguishing who your protagonist is and avoid being drawn into arguments with pretentious or combative people – whether or not they are African – otherwise baiting you will become part of the local entertainment.

d. Try to correct misperceptions. It often helps to try to explain your points through analogies with the loca l scene. Don‟t get mad. Keep cool.

IX. Do unto others as they do unto you. Or, at least be aware of what they are doing unto you.

a. The point has been made: in Africa being able to use your connections and effectively use intermediarie s is the name of the game. The ability to manipul ate situations to your favor is highly desirable.

b. Don‟t feel badly when you learn you are being manipulated – or you may have a permanent case of the blues. It is advisable to reveal to your manipulator that you recognise what they‟re doing and woul d be better able to assist them if they were to share their moti ves and objectives more openly with you.

c. First, get to understand the game. Then, learn how to play it. Good players tend to be manipulated less, or at least they get to benefit and enjoy it more.

X. There is no free lunch, literally, when you’re invited to the party, you’re supposed to contribute.

a. When an African invites you to an event – wedd ing, baptism, or housewarming – they will be reaching deep into their pockets and the pockets of their kinsmen, their age group society, or other social security network. They hope, however, to cover costs – and, in some cases, maybe make a little.

b. At a minimum, you will be expected to tip the musicians and dancers. You may be put in a position where you have to “bid” in a raffle, or otherwise make a contribution to an unspecified pot. You will also gain considerable popularity by joining in when any group – dancing takes place.

c. When you go to a village, take something which can serve a lot of people. A bag of rice, sugar, tea, candy, and where appropriate lots of kola nuts, or drinks (soda pop and/or beer).

d. Enjoy. Feel free to speak to people even if you’ve never met them before. As anywhere else, any good conve rsation starter with a neutral subject will attract the attention and kindness of other people. Talking to strangers is not a taboo.”


  1. The comments were written by Ms. Susan Lenore Bremner, the political advisor to CJTF-HOA from 2011-2012. Ms. Bremner moved next to Asmara, Eritrea, where she served as the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim, July 2012–April 2014.


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