A was talking to a friend of mine this morning about a book she was reading – What is the What by Dave Eggers. It’s all about the journey of a Sudanese refugee fleeing the war and ending up living in America. In all honesty, it is not my kind of book. It’s too tough to read. Too much suffering for me to handle. I am a coward in that way. It will drive me crazy if I know anything more than what I already know. I am too consumed by it and it will take over my life more than what it has already. But that’s not the point of this blog.
She was telling me this story of how this young guy walked from Sudan to safety. And it took him a bit longer because he had to do it without a GPS system. Surprisingly enough GPS systems do not come standard with your refugee vehicle – your feet. But he made it to safety eventually. And he landed up in the US – safety at last. Or was it?
He managed to find a place to stay in the US – Atlanta. Not a posh area – just your run of the mill tough US district. But he had a home. And he was sure he was safer in this “mildly” tough area compared to Sudan. And then, one night, he heard banging on his door. And with it came a shout for help. It was a female voice crying out for him to please open the door and help her. Of course he was going to help her. I mean really – he was alive because there were people out there who helped him. And he owed society at least a little bit of humanity to help when others are in need. So he opened the door to help. And hell came with it.
He was robbed. And then he was beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Welcome to the world. Welcome to the world where you are never safe. But this isn’t about his story. This isn’t about finding a place where one can just have an opportunity to make your own way. That’s what the book is for – feel free to go and read it. This is about the difference between knowing your enemies in Africa and not knowing in America. This is about how a different culture makes it more difficult to survive in a safe place than in a place of war and genocide.
You see, the problem is that in Africa you can see your enemy. You can see those who want to hurt you or kill you. It is in their eyes. It is in their voices. It is in their faces. It is in the panga in their hands. You see it straight away. The hatred is there for you to see and for you to run away from. They don’t try and be your friend first. They don’t try to make as if they need something from you. No. They come for you and you flee or you die. No hidden agenda. Just hate and murder. And you see it from a mile away.
But in the US, and most “western” countries, those who want to kill you will hide behind a veneer of decency. They will try to be your friend or try to get you to relax by “selling” you a story. “Help! Please help me!” And you open the door and they come for you. But by then it is too late. And the hate is hidden as well. Even when they rob you and beat you up you don’t always see the hate in their eyes or hear the hatred in their voices. No. Many times you will hear laughter in their voice as they beat you up and kick you and spit on you. Or call you names.
I am not saying that the one is right and the other one is wrong. All I am saying is that hate comes in different forms. For us from Africa we can see it immediately. And we can run. We can survive on gut instinct because it is easy to read the other person like an open book. But it makes it so much more difficult when you are then transplanted into a new country. Where the hatred is hidden. And the intent is hidden. You will get beaten up because your gut is so out of tune.
Maybe it is because Africans are so “honest” to the bone. We hate you? No problem. We’ll show you we hate you. We’ll beat you up or kill you. No problem. We like you? No problem. We’ll show you we like you. We’ll invite you into our homes and share a few beers and laughter. No problem. In Africa you know when you are in sh*t and you get that chance to run because you can see it coming from miles away.
But it is also the reason why we are so easy to get along with. Love comes just as easily as hatred. We love you or we hate you. No problem. We will give you everything and trust you completely when we love you. And we love more than we hate – no matter how much you see the bad side of the story. You need 10% of a population to live in hate to cause anarchy and genocide for the other 90%. But what you see is what you get.
When I first started traveling across the world I had a problem in countries outside of Africa. I never felt safe in NY, London, Paris or anywhere. Give me the streets of Lusaka, Bamako, Johannesburg or any African city any time. Okay, maybe not Johannesburg. But you know what I mean. I feel safer in the streets of Africa than in the West. I just knew how to fit in when I get to the African destinations. It is in my blood and I can subconsciously make an assessment about my safety. Never had to think about it. I just got into the city and knew whether I was safe or not. I felt safe in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Because I just felt safe. Can’t explain it. But not outside Africa. I couldn’t read these new places. It wasn’t in my DNA. It isn’t that bad anymore. I have been living in the UK and now the US for almost 6 years. And I have a better “feel” of where I am than before. But I still “relax” more when I feel the African soil under my feet.
This principle goes for doing business in Africa too. In Africa you will never be taken for a ride if you know how to see the person on the other side. We know when they are trying to take us for a ride. And they know we know as well. Why do you think they are so open about that “facilitation fee” at immigration in so many African countries? Because it is no secret that they take money from people. So why keep it a “secret” when everyone knows? Even our corruption is open and transparent!
But in a good business deal everything evolves around the shake of a hand and a look in the eye. If someone gives you their word and look you in the eye you are halfway there. What you should do to make it impossible for them to take you for a ride is meet their family, share a beer and a meal, and tell them about your family and life. Now they know you. And if they shake your hand and look you in the eyes and tell you that you have a deal they mean it. You have a deal and they will do everything to make that deal stand. (Of course you still have to overcome the principle of “African time”. But that is for another day).
In short. Business is done on the word between people. My word is worth more than anything else you can offer. If I give you my word I can do nothing but stick to that word. Yes, there is honor amongst thieves in this way. Tomorrow I might rip someone else off because I never gave them my word. But it is a new day and a new person. It has no relation to the deal between us today. See – even hypocrisy has a different meaning in Africa…
But if you do business in the US you expect a different set of business rules. Get that contract signed and read the fine print. That’s the deal between people. Not your spoken word. But your written words. And signature. Nothing wrong with that – this isn’t a judgement. It’s just a different way of doing business.
But in Africa that contract will mean nothing. It is just a piece of paper with a few (or many) words on it that I don’t even understand. It is legal talk – just another way of saying I nailed you on paper. But that piece of paper is useless if you didn’t first got to know the person signing the contract. You still have to meet the family, have a few beers and a meal, and shake their hand and look them in the eyes. If you haven’t? Then go and use that piece of paper in the more traditional way behind the bush over there.
As I said, this isn’t a judgement call on either of these cultures. It’s just a reminder that we are wired differently. We carry our emotions on our sleeves a bit more. Maybe because we don’t have too many options. Because just as easily as what we can read other people – they can read us. They know us within a second. And they know whether they need to run or hug. With me? I live on two principles. One, I am a hugger and a lover not a fighter. Two, it is difficult to hit me on the nose if I run away with my back turned towards you.
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