Anyone who spends an extended period immersed in a foreign environment will experience a degree of unease and disorientation. This is feeling is called culture shock. Even seasoned travelers are not immune, although the symptoms manifest differently in each person.
I’ve traveled all over the world and I usually do not experience significant culture shock. When I spent seven weeks in Ghana in 2011, however, my culture shock was particularly acute. I expressed my internal discomfort in visible irritation with certain people and local customs that permeated my daily activities. My culture shock was seasoned by initial confusion over what constituted normal social interaction in the region. Past experience with culture shock gave me the self awareness to recognize that what I was feeling was primarily a product of my own malaise rather than a justified reaction against inherently negative attributes of Ghanaian society.
Prior planning and preparation is not a cure-all for culture shock but it is a powerful vaccination against debilitating bewilderment. Due diligence work before getting on the plane is usually sufficient to ward away any serious surprises. This advice is important for tourists. It is even more important for anyone conducting business, diplomacy, or service work in a foreign country. Culture shock stalks the unprepared mind. When it strikes, culture shock may cause counterproductive reactions that undermine a crucial task or mission. Such reactions may include any combination of self-isolation, offensive social interaction, close-mindedness, anger, depression, etc.
Africa in general is potentially confusing to the outsider. Mental preparation is essential. My seven week experience in Ghana was much more productive because I read a book called African Friends and Money Matters by David E. Maranz. This book covers the basic cultural assumptions that govern everyday social and business encounters in many West African cultures. I referenced Maranz’s book while in country and consistently found its insights both helpful and accurate. Gradually I adapted to my environment.
I read V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River after returning home. Naipaul’s depiction of expatriate and outsider life in Africa resonated with my own experiences in Ghana and Tanzania. This novel would be an superb travel companion on your way to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, check out allAfrica.com, an excellent source of Africa specific news.