09 June 2014

10 things I discovered working in Africa

I spent almost 5 years working in Africa. My work took me to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar, Zambia, Malawi, Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa and I topped the list with holidays in a few other.

These are some reflections from my time interacting with senior executives and with laymen (taxi drivers, shop assistants, hotel staff, etc.)

1. Malaria hits everyone

Even the most educated and successful people I interacted with had caught malaria a few times. In fact, many of my clients in well paid jobs were often off work because they were sick with malaria. The disease is widespread and it causes 700k deaths a year topping the list for reasons to die in Africa


2. Some African countries are rich by GDP per capita standards

According to the CIA World Factbook Botswana at $16k, Gabon at $19k and Equatorial Guinea at $21k are relatively rich countries primarily thanks to natural resources such as diamonds and oil. However, their social inequalities mean that GDP per capita figures mask a huge disparity in wealth. Poverty is very present in all of them despite the high GDP rank


3. Animistic beliefs complement the big religions

Medicine man
Most countries in Africa are very religious either Muslim, Orthodox or Christian but, regardless of the predominant religion, rooted animistic and traditional beliefs are widespread. Almost every family, even those educated and wealthy, have superstitions and traditions that have evolved from traditional African beliefs. Many believe that both the physical and spiritual world are linked and that souls and spirits exist. Modern religions have not eliminated but rather complemented the local traditions and practices


4. Africa is very diverse, all 54 countries are very different

Pigmies of Uganda
From the Muslim and conservative north to the unique Indian-cum-French Madagascar and through the white South Africa, the Pre-historical Ethiopia, the historically powerful Sudan and the rich and developed Namibia Africa is a vast and extremely diverse continent. No country is the same. There are over 2,000 languages spoken and over 1 billion people living there, a few times the population of Europe. And just like Europe, each country is significantly different. In the West we make the mistake of thinking about Africa as a whole and unique region when it is actually a continent with disparaging cultures.

Local dance of Swaziland

5. It can get really cold

Winter in Cape of God Hope
When you think about Africa the warmth of the desert and the tropics will make you think of heat immediately. Africa has recorded the hottest temperatures in the world but not all the continent is around the equator. Both North and Southern Africa have countries with seasons which experience winter weather. My winter in Johannesburg was bitterly cold. Crisp clear sky days threatened with cold wind and low temperatures. In the North, Egypt and the rest of the Maghreb also experience very cold winters so don't forget to pack your coat if you are visiting in the less crowded months.


6. Every country has a staple food but they are all different

Injera - from Yelp
I love all sorts of carbohydrate staples. I love rice, cassava, green banana, potatoes, beans, lentils, anything that is generally used as a meat filler. I'm a carbohydrate lover. In Africa, I enjoyed a feast. Each country had its own variation of the king of staples. East Africa has ugali, Uganda has matoke, Ethiopians eat injera, a bitter spongy flat bread that serves as plate and as cutlery. In North Africa you can eat couscous in Morocco, flat breads and beans in Egypt and Sudan and potatoes in the Mediterranean coast. West Africa eats cassava and yams which you will also recognise in Latin America, rice and other legumes are very ingrained (pun intended!) as well. So although the weather and vegetation can make some regions have similar food (for example East Africa, or Northern Africa) the staples are varied.


7. Fabulous beaches dreams are made of are not the monopoly of the Pacific, Asia or the Caribbean

Nosy Be beach
Africa has some of the most beautiful beaches and islands. The Nosy Be archipelago in the North of Madagascar has incredibly beautiful uninhabited islands, crystalline waters and fluffy white sand beaches. Mozambique, another rising star in the luxury and exclusive resort arena, is already well known for its exclusive and isolated islands which rival any of the well known destinations. Off the Coast of Tanzania not only Zanzibar has beautiful beaches but escape the now well-known Spice Island to the lesser known resorts in Pemba or Mafia and you will feel like you've landed in paradise. And don't forget the Mediterranean coast in the north or the Red Sea for those romantic Roman and Egyptian culturally rich journeys. 


8. Sometimes, airports, wildlife and cities blend in

Zebras with Nairobi skyline
I loved landing in Kenya every week. Nairobi is surrounded by a National park full of wildlife. This is not a zoo, this is a proper park where lions, giraffes and zebras among other roam freely. What's the best about it? You can spot giraffes from the plane when landing or take a safari at 6am before going to the office. We spotted lions hunting, chasing their prey from the comfort of our car. And, because it a very accessible park, you can use any car, so the same driver who used to take us to the office took a detour and drove us through the park.


9. You need to be armed with patience

When I started working in Africa I was used to Spain's efficiency and that is not to say a lot but when dealing with anyone in Africa I had to adjust my expectations and the way I dealt with situations. I quickly realised that airport immigration decides to stamp your passport whenever they are done with the gossipping with their colleagues; that arriving first did not necessarily mean getting your passport first - sometime passports were sorted first come last out as they were piled as received; at restaurants getting the order you asked for is a bit of a roulette - be prepared to take anything because re-ordering as a result of an incorrect order could take you another half hour; Despite all this I do believe that this made me a better person, more forgiving and more accepting of mistakes and shortcomings. I also realised that the sooner I learned to live with this new concept of time the sooner I would be happier.

10. Africa is fascinating

Chobe National Park, Botswana

I could never have enough. I went on safaris, I met new and interesting people, I spotted all sorts of wildlife, I tried new foods, I peered into strange and exotic cultures, I learned about different cultures, I marvelled at the colourful clothing, I smiled at the rhythmic accents and I fell in love with the continent