How to avoid unintentionally offending West Africans
I really don't know where I'm going when I leave to Ghana, only that I don't know a soul on the whole continent and that I'll spend some time working there. The job offer came up suddenly, and I had time only to book my flights and get the visa and required vaccinations. When visiting or going to live in a new country, it's important to remember that we are all human, and have more in common than we are different. That said, it's not a bad idea to know a bit about the new country before you're there!
The tips I'm going to give are mostly ones I took a while in learning, some lessons I learned by making mistakes.
1. Greet the people you meet by shaking their hand. They will be happy to teach you their local way of shaking hands (shake right hands, grab each others' thumbs, then return to handshake postition and snap your middle finger with his/her middle finger).
2. Only use your right, never left, hand when eating, handing someone something or receiving something. Locals use their left hand as their 'bathroom' hand, and although they understand that I might use both hands for doing many things, they still feel offended if handed something from my left hand. This is especially difficult for lefties to get used to, but I still automatically hand things with my right hand after being away from Africa for almost two years!
3. You will notice that people ask how you are doing, followed by 'and your family? your friends?' Get into the habit of inquiring after their near and dear ones, too! After too many times of not knowing what to say when asked 'how's your brother?' I realized it wouldn't be so bad to get in touch with the guy!
4. Try their food. Offering a guest a meal is a show of friendship, and the locals will love it if you eat all up! It wasn't always possible for me, sometimes the food was just too spicy, or just way too much, but compliment the cook (but if you don't want more, make sure they know that, as compliments often result in another serving)! 'I really like trying your food, I think I will gradually get used to it!' is a sentence I used in the beginning. In the end, I loved it! Locals usually eat with their right hand, and sometimes from a common dish. I was always served an individual portion and was given a fork or spoon to eat my food with.
5. Age deserves respect, and so does position. Show respect to the elderly, and, for that matter, to everyone else. Politeness is a valued attribute.
6. Take your time. Enjoy your time in the 'timeless' Africa. And slow down your pace. You might notice that although the city is full of hustle and bustle, not many people are moving too fast. Africans are generally not too particular about their schedules, so instead of getting uptight if the guy you agreed to meet is an hour or two late, just enjoy the leisurely pace of life!