1. How ‘outdoors’ everything is – people chatting on the streets, preparing food in their courtyards, selling all kinds of things, all outside. Streets are busy, active places. Few people own a car, and so the outdoors is where people meet each other. I guess it was like that in the West years ago too (though perhaps less in winter!)

2. How everyone is part of everyone else’s world. Unless you live in Yorkshire, you’re pretty unlikely to randomly address strangers in the street back home. Here, it’s completely normal. You can talk to anyone at any time, and you’ll never get that surprises – almost put out – look for ‘invading’ their personal space or peace and quiet. Community is still real here. I guess it was like that in the West once, too.

3. How nothing has a price (until you name it!) Visit a market in the UK, and you’ll see signs reading “Potatos £1.20 a kilo” or “Tomatoe’s £1” (and, yes, usually spelt like that!!) On an African market, there are not prices – YOU name the price you want and they will tell you if it’s high enough. If not, you discuss the price until you’ve reached an agreed amount.

4. Palm trees! Now, I’ve seen enough of these to know that they are not the ‘symbol of paradise’ many Westerners perceive them as. That said, there’s something wonderfully beautiful about these plants, and vastly different from any flora which grows in British climes.

5. How much dodgy wiring there is everywhere. In Britain, health and safety has gone mad! However, it does mean that you can put a plug into a socket without worrying that you’ll get zapped by 220 volts every time! I NEVER touch a plug with bare feet in Africa (once was enough!)

6. The absence of carpets. Why would you want them in a hot climate anyway? Rather, a nice mosaic-tiled floor, or even just polished concrete, does the job!

7. Flat roofs and white concrete walls. Now, where I live, it’s pitched roofs and red brick walls in most places. Not in Africa. Of course, there are mud huts and all kinds of other permutations, but the white walled, flat roofed building is number 1 in Urban Africa.

8. The sounds of an African night. Where I live is pretty rural. However, the nights are still silent, as far as animal life is concerned. In Africa, you can hear crickets, cicadas, frogs, fruit bats and all kinds of other wee beasties, all singing a delightful cacophony from dusk till dawn.

9. How clapped out most taxis are! Of course, there are some nice ones, but in many cases a cracked windscreen, poorly-fitting doors, missing seatbelts or non-existent suspension are the order of the day. This is what makes public transport in Africa interesting, after all!

10. How many warm smiles you see, in spite of adversity. British people smile sometimes. But usually when you’ve told them a joke or when they’re really happy. Africans are either happier in general, or just smile more. I passed a beggar in the street today, with little more than a few coppers in his small plastic bowl. He gave me the best smile I’d seen in a long time. Maybe it was like that in the West once, too.

If you like reading what Rob writes, try his book here.

4 Comments posted on "Ten Things That Strike You When You Return To Africa"
timthast on July 29th, 2014 at 7:24 am #

Spot on except 2 of these are not true in Urban Yaounde.

1. It rains a LOT and so all the roofs are peaked roofs. I remember sitting on my back porch the first month and noticing, “Hey, that house has a pointy roof. . . Wait, so does that one. and that one. . . . okay, all of them.”
2. strangers do not greet or accept your greeting on the streets. They do have that “invaded/put out” look when you try. I gave up.

That whole “outside” culture. I have always wondered how much of western culture was influenced by the need to stay indoors for months on end. Certainly feeds a literate culture.

Andy Rayner on July 29th, 2014 at 10:39 am #

Nailed it with this list.

Erin Brady Mally on July 30th, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

#11. Garbage/Trash/Rubbish everywhere! at least that’s what I notice when I first get back to Mali.

Rob on August 3rd, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

Indeed! Though much less so in East Africa, I’ve found…