A Story about Cultural Taboos – Part Two

South and Central Africa

Within the last month George met with his friend Mitt and they travelled together to some African countries in the central and southern regions as well as to the surrounding Islands. Unfortunately George didn’t learn from his former mistakes in Oceania and he forgot to inform himself about the cultural taboos waiting in this part of the world.

In Cameroon they made so many pictures of military establishments, government buildings and of uniforms of the soldiers which is prohibited. Travelling to Uganda they put on their shorts because of the heat but they missed the point that this is not the appropriate clothing for men in Uganda because it’s a sign of being a child. When they changed clothes they were invited to dinner by a stranger but they disregarded two rules. They were silent the whole evening and they walked over the pots which contained food which are both interpreted as rude.

Lion Taronga ZooIn Kenya the two guys were frustrated and they lost their temper and shouted at some of the locals. Since disputes are resolved either by using humor or by avoiding the confrontation this action was disrespectful. Due to their sloppy look in damaged short trousers they also lost the last respect of the Kenyans.

Fortunately they got the hint that they shouldn’t ask about someone’s ethnicity (Hutu or Tutsi) in Burundi or Rwanda so they referred to them as Burundians or respectively Rwandans which was good because it is illegal to discuss ethnic groups in public in Rwanda. Moreover, they recognized that they shouldn’t ask about the 1994 genocide as almost every Rwandan has a related story to this subject which they might tell you if they build a closer relationship. Furthermore, they already learned that wearing shorts is not appropriate in a lot of countries in this region so this was the first time they didn’t drop a brick.

But they showed pride will have a fall. In Tanzania they indeed wear appropriate clothes with long pants but they relaxed in their chairs with their feet propped up on the table which is considered rude. They also touched some products with their left hand at a market, they ate with the left hand and they even touched one Tanzanian with it. So they disrespected the majority of the people by using the left hand. Moreover, Mitt thought it was funny to braid the hair of George but since this is implying that George is homosexual which is a major taboo in Tanzania they had to leave the country.

Cheetah in Taronga ZooIn Zambia both were visited by their women who wear short skirts because they haven’t been aware of the fact that they shouldn’t expose their thighs in public. They also kissed and hugged in public which should normally be avoided as it is considered sexually explicit. Afterwards Mitt disrespected three other rules in just a single situation. He didn’t greet before starting the interaction with one market vendor and he even beckoned him by whistling which is reserved for animals in the Zambian culture. Finally he mocked the vendor by touching his head.

In Lesotho George didn’t talk to people in public which is considered rude. The same mistake Mitt and George made in Namibia because there it is common to greet everyone you see even if you don’t know them. They also asked some people:“What tribe are you from?“ This can be taken as an offense and would be better expressed by the question „Which region are you from?“

They also dropped a brick by refusing the food offered by people in Mozambique and by not staying for a tea during a short visit to a former friend. In Zimbabwe Mitt really had a bad day. Firstly, he stuck his tongue out to an elderly woman and than he talked to a man with the hands in his pockets. Afterwards he licked his lips and accidently watched a woman during this who took this as an obscene offense and he made some hissing sounds with his mouth which is also considered bad.

Meerkat in Taronga ZooFortunately, they did everything right in the next countries. They learned before that the „OK“ sign with the thumb and the index finger forming a circle is considered obscene in Malawi. The same is implied if you place your thumb between your forefinger and the second finger and point at someone in South Africa. In Madagascar you are rude if you point at someone without bending the index finger.

After this long journey with a lot of learning about cultural mistakes Mitt spent his vacation on the Seychelles whereas George enjoyed the time with his wife in Mauritius. During Mitt adhered to the evening dress code by wearing long trousers on the Seychelles, George learned to spell the Mauritian word for taboo behaviour which is „sauvaze“ and means savage. They called George and his wife like this in Mauritius because he was too loud and too impudent and she was drinking and smoking in public.

6 thoughts on “A Story about Cultural Taboos – Part Two

  1. Great post! My boyfriend and I are going travelling from next july all over the place so this kind of post is awesome! It’s funny the things we don’t even think about and take for granted when you live in a country of such freedom and so little cultural boundaries, posts like this remind you that everywhere is different and if you are going to visit the place you mus respect the local customs. Thanks!

    • Something I have noticed is that for the most part, the more “local” the places you’re visiting, the easier it is to make mistakes and learn the right way without insulting people. They are just nicer people! Once you get truly remote (like well away from any road in Africa) the people tend to be more confused by your behavior at first. Smiles and language-less jokes help enormously in these cases. And the older folks might be frightened a bit by your presence while the young ones are just too curious to be offended. An endlessly fascinating subject this.

  2. I believe I might have asked one guy in Namibia which tribe he was from. But it was because I assumed he was Himba (he was guiding/translating for me at the time) and he wasn’t. I can’t remember if he volunteered the fact he was from another northern tribe with a similar language, or if I asked him. Whichever it was I never got the impression I insulted him. But who knows, he might have just ignored the slight. Very interesting stuff!

  3. After we went gorilla tracking in Uganda, my sister was excited that her long pants were the kind that zipped off into shorts. She was real sad (because she was so hot from the intense hiking) when I reminded her that she should not be showing her thighs and she needed to get the pant legs fixed before our van stopped and she got out again…

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