The following information is compiled by a working group that exists within CGIS. Everything that has been created or curated was done so to encourage all travelers to consider their various identities as they pursue an international experience, but the research shouldn't end here. We do recognize that many of our quotes or examples have negative experiences or observations embedded within, even in the reflections that are mostly positive. We are acutely aware of how these comments can and have affected the perceptions and realities of other nations and wish to exercise caution and balance in providing an outlet for the perspectives and narratives of students and faculty. We are always available to discuss some of the narratives and examples discussed here with students or concerns they have during their pre-departure and on-site experience, and we encourage you to email CGIS should you have any questions, concerns, or would like an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.
“Because Madagascar was colonized by the French the Malagasy people, not all of them, but many of them have an underlying disliking towards any white people. This wasn't so much of an issue for me in the Capital but in Andasibe, a small rural village, all the adults and children would yell ‘Vaza’ at us when we would walk by which means stranger and outsider. It was constant. It didn't feel good but i got used to it and allowed me to understand their culture and how they view 'white' people.” — CGIS Alumnx
“As a foreigner, I tried to go along with what others decided I should be, but these racial labels also affected how I was treated or perceived. When considered ‘American,’ I definitely received more privilege and respect than when labeled ‘coloured.’ When considered ‘Mexican,’ I received more problematic comments about my ‘exoticness’ than when I was labeled ‘American.’” — Amanda Machado for the Matador Network
Being an American student in Sub-Saharan Africa is for the most part a privileged experience. Because of the American dominance of global media, it is possible, if not likely, that natives in the countries students visit know more about the U.S than students know about theirs (Ferguson, 2016). Because of American privilege, students can more readily travel with their passports throughout Africa than the citizens of African nations (Ferguson, 2016).
This privilege is also apparent in more subtle ways. Students can travel to many Sub-Saharan African nations and find people there who speak English, without having to learn or speak their native languages. Also, while the view towards America by all citizens is not necessarily a positive one, the view will most likely not be a condescending one, positing that their country needs to be “saved” by outsiders.
It is a good idea for students to understand some of the cultural differences in everyday life that may exist when visiting Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in Nigeria, due to the frequency of terrorism, metal detectors are much more common at the entry to stores and restaurants than they are in the U.S (Jacobs, 2019). And, in many different parts of Western Africa, bribes are an accepted part of the social contract of everyday life (Jacobs, 2019). It’s important to do research on the countries you are visiting. That being said, students should not let their research lead to hubris. It’s incredibly offensive (and common) for Americans to assume they know more about the country than its local inhabitants (Jacobs, 2019). That’s not to say students should never offer an opinion or participate in dialogue, but it’s a good idea to both realize and vocalize that the student’s opinion is likely less informed.
Finally, it’s very important to be cautious of how students engage in volunteer work or charity work. Often, work done in these areas can have the best intentions, yet work to perpetuate inequality and post-colonial mindset (Ferguson, 2016). If students are doing volunteer work, they should make sure that it’s community-led and guided by what the community says it needs, not what outsiders think it does.
“You have to suspend your idea of perfect access. Accessibility is going to look different in different places.” — Cerise Roth-Vinson, chief operating officer at MIUSA
The number of persons in Africa with disabilities varies depending on the source. According to the United Nations, about 80 million people in Africa have disabilities. This estimate is much higher according to the World Health Organization, which estimates the number to be closer to 300 million. (Disabled World, 2020) Many Africans with disabilities are marginalized from society. They are excluded from schools and work opportunities. They are forced to be the poorest members of society, often relying on charity to survive (Disabled World, 2020).
In many West African cultures, the concept of disability is a relatively new remnant of post-colonialism. In Nigeria for example, prior to Western influences, persons with disability were seen both as “societal defaults” (Eskay, 2012) who were subject to shame and ridicule, and also collective members of the community, whom it was the responsibility of the community to take care of. Post-colonial attitudes have shifted the narrative. While there is more of a call for the inclusion of persons with disabilities, there has also been a decline in the collectivist ethos of taking care of these individuals.
From a policy perspective, some nations have worked to better codify equity for persons with disabilities into the law. South Africa signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. (Lonely Planet, n.d) And, the South African Constitution, under Article 9(3), preserves equality for people with disabilities. (Lonely Planet, n.d)
South Africa, in general, stands out as probably the best nation on the continent for accessibility. For students with visual and/or mobility disabilities, South Africa has a rather robust and growing list of accessible facilities, and resources. (Lonely Planet, n.d)
“Being a woman in a more conservative part of South Africa was a bit of a jarring experience at times. Local men are much more comfortable trying to openly hit on and flirt with women than I have experienced at home. This is more cultural than anything else and I never felt unsafe because of my cohort and on-site staff, but I do think female participants should mentally prepare themselves.” — CGIS Alumnx
“Being white meant that any time I walked down the street, I'd hear people yelling out ‘Toubab!’ (‘Foreigner!’). Also there was a ton of sexual harassment. I was followed by men on multiple occasions, one of whom grabbed my neck from behind before letting me go. Another guy learned my class schedule so he could always run out in the street to propose to me every day after class. It was very creepy. There were endless marriage proposals, especially at the markets and in the village. Usually, it was just their way of making a joke, but it gets old. It made it extremely different to have friendships with any men in Senegal because they would not accept a platonic relationship.” — CGIS Alumnx
“As a woman [in Madagascar], I did not want to walk alone when it was dark which was challenging because the sun sets at 5:30 as it is winter during this time of year. I also was sometimes frustrated with my inability to leave my house after 5:30 because I sometimes did want to hang out with friends outside of the scheduled class times and it wasn't always possible. I think that for the most part, I felt totally fine walking places because the neighborhood was always busy, and I had people who were looking out for me.” — CGIS Alumnx
Overall, Sub-Saharan Africa is a rapidly improving, but still mostly patriarchal region. In almost every nation, there are significant gender gaps in earning power, political power, access to education, and civil rights. Gender gaps are found in all factors of the economy (Ghandi, 2019). Women earn fewer profits as entrepreneurs, and in the agriculture-based economies, amongst others (Ghandi, 2019). Women also have less access to credit. In many nations, women are disproportionately unemployed or members of the “informal economy” (market sellers or street vendors) in relation to their education compared to men (Ghandi, 2019).
In Nigeria, policy work still has much to do in the area of gender equity. There are no laws that mandate nondiscrimination or equal pay for men and women for the same work (Bro, 2019). There are restrictions on the types of labor that women are allowed to do (Bro, 2019). In terms of education, girls are less likely to have access and in some regions, are twice as likely to be unenrolled in school as boys (Bro, 2019). 50% of Nigerian women are in the labor force as opposed to 60% of men (Bro, 2019).
In some countries, like Senegal, policy work is being put in place to promote progress and ratify existing legal protections for women. Senegal’s 2001 constitution guarantees equality for women (UN Women Africa. n.d.). Senegal adopted the Gender Parity Law in 2010, which established the National Strategy for Gender Equality and Equity (SNEEG) that aims to:
"Contribute to make Senegal an emerging country in 2035 with a society of solidarity in a state of law, without discrimination, where men and women will have the same opportunities to participate in its development and enjoy the benefits of its growth". (UN Women Africa. n.d.)
Despite the patriarchal nature of society, many women travelers report feeling safe when traveling in Africa. While in certain regions, marriage proposals are common, cat-calling and aggressive sexual advances are less common than in areas like Northern Africa or Southern Europe, or Latin America (Ghandi, 2019). The patriarchal undertones lean more to the over-protection and domestication of women than the exploitation and objectification of women on a fictional “patriarchy spectrum”. It is still advisable though for women to travel in groups and refrain from solo travel as much as possible.
“While taking vitals in the clinic [in South Africa] an older male claimed he was afraid of me because he thought I was a nigger, due to my accent. I was confused because I did not expect that, since we were the same skin color. However during the apartheids, a minor difference in skin complexions could initiate a major difference in treatment toward people.” — CGIS Alumnx
"As a non-white female [in Uganda and Rwanda] I felt unsettled being lumped in as white by association due to the cultural name-calling of ‘mzungu.’” —CGIS Alumnx
“As a Black woman [in South Africa] I knew that I would be a part of the majority race because of the color of my skin, but I did not know that I was going to be singled out at times. There were many times when people would try to have conversations with me in Zulu (the main language) and would only want to work with me because I looked liked them and they trusted me over the others. Also as a woman, I often got looks and approached by men no matter my attire, and some men only approached me because they knew I was American and they assumed I was rich, but I told them the truth. Some of the people didn't understand what it meant to be a Black American and they barely knew that Black American existed, to some.” — CGIS Alumnx
“While studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, many locals refused to consider me ‘American’ and instead labeled me ‘Mexican’ or ‘Ecuadorian’ after the country of my parents. Inversely, others considered me “white” simply because I was from the U.S, and refused to acknowledge my identity as a person of color from the States. Others simply associated me with the racial classification of their own country that made the most sense: in South Africa, sometimes I was labeled ‘coloured,’ sometimes I was labeled ‘white.’ Whenever I’d try to explain that I feel most comfortable identifying as ‘Latino,’ people were confused and had a hard time understanding what ‘Latino’ really meant.” — Amanda Machado for the Matador Network
Many students of color who travel to Sub-Saharan Africa do so as heritage seekers. A prevailing theme is connecting to ancestral roots and finding identity. Often, this process is not as simple as they believe it will be. For one, the cohorts that students find themselves a part of may not be what they expect. Often students expect programs in Africa to have many students of color, but instead find themselves to be in the minority yet again, at least within their cohort (Henry, 2014). These cohort dynamics often pose a threat as many of the racial or cultural issues prevalent back home travel with the program as well (Henry, 2014).
The lived experience can also pose challenges as well. Many students of color are dealing with not just the culture shock of living in a new country, but also the racial shock of interacting with locals under a new racial identity (Henry, 2014). Often for students of color, race is their most salient identity back home, and they understand race and racism from a U.S.- based perspective. However, in Africa, the American identity becomes the dominant identity that governs social interactions. This comes with stereotypes about Americans held by many Africans and can cause students to feel an identity crisis. (Longmire-Avital, 2019) These students often feel a connection to the country, but also still feel treated like an outsider of the local culture.
Despite this, many students of color report positive experiences from studying in Africa (Lee, 2016). Although not insiders, many students of color do get access in ways that white students may not. Often, while they are seen as outsiders, there is some form of kinship extended from the local community. Studying abroad in Africa can also help students of color develop their self-awareness and understanding of their identity. They often learn to appreciate the dynamics of identity and the concept of what it means to be African, African-American, and/or black. They are able to create a space where they can celebrate the similarities between all three identities, while also appreciating the differences (Lee, 2016).
“Being closeted was necessary for me because homosexuality is frowned upon in Rwanda and illegal in Uganda. The on-site staff in Rwanda was very supportive, and while I didn't come out to my host family there, I felt as if I could have come out and been accepted. In Uganda, I don't think the staff was necessarily less supportive, but they were certainly less understanding. In my host family in Uganda, I also did not have any privacy, which made it impossible to call my girlfriend back in the US or to be fully honest with my parents about everything I was going through when I called them. I started to notice myself becoming irritable and easily distracted in class, and more emotionally closed off with the other students outside of class. After a week, I really felt like this was taking away from my experience, and I asked to move out of my homestay. The staff supported this decision and moved me out of my host family, but they told my host family that it was because I was having problems with my boyfriend. I thought this was more than a little bit insensitive, particularly because when I saw my host family at the host family party a week later, I not only had to conceal my sexual orientation, but I also had to actively lie about it. Overall, I think that having this experience as an LGBTQ+ person was incredibly difficult and valuable. It taught me a lot about how my identity impacts the way that I understand and process my experiences. While I wish that I had been more prepared before my departure, I'm not actually sure what would adequately prepare someone for that experience. I'm happy to speak about my experiences with any LGBTQ+ prospective students who are concerned about this.” — CGIS Alumnx
LGBTQ experiences for students will vary depending on what part of the continent they are in. South Africa is probably the most LGBTQ-friendly of all of the countries. There are thriving gay and lesbian communities in Cape Town and Johannesburg (Lonely Planet, n.d.). However, there is a dichotomy that exists between those major city communities, and rural communities. While it is in the South African constitution to not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, LGBTQ individuals have been known to be targeted and harassed when leaving the urban setting for the rural context (Lonely Planet, n.d.).
In East Africa, discretion is usually the best policy. Male homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya (Lonely Planet, n.d.). While not illegal in Rwanda, it is certainly strongly frowned upon (Lonely Planet, n.d.). Female sexuality exists in a liminal space of legality in many of these countries and tends to not bear as much of the brunt of public outrage as male homosexuality, but it would be fair to say that it is still very much frowned upon.
In West Africa, much is the same. Homosexuality is commonly illegal, even in more “Western-influenced” nations like Nigeria and Ghana. In countries where homosexuality is not illegal, like Cote D’Ivoire and Liberia, there is still much social consternation and very little protection for people who are targeted and harassed (Lonely Planet, n.d.). This is particularly true in the more rural parts of these countries, where homosexual persons have been assaulted and murdered with little to no repercussions.
“I know of a 30-year-old man who wanted to marry a lady of 26 years. The lady had an elder brother who had suffered a mental illness. When the man's family got to know of the family history, the whole marital process came to a halt. All because they believed the lady might bring this condition into their family.” — Dr. Dennis B. Daliri, Ghana
Due to the post-traumatic stress effects of many years of war, poverty, and natural disasters in the region, mental illness is a prevalent and growing issue in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Mental health is not typically seen as an element of wellness or health in Sub-Saharan Africa (Gberie, 2017). In fact, there is a widely held view in Africa, that many mentally ill patients brought their illness upon themselves by the use of illicit drugs, morally deficient behavior punished by God, or by witchcraft (Gberie, 2017). This is also made more complex by the proliferation in African culture of traditional healers, many of whom are practice conflicts with the Westernized approach to mental health (Gberie, 2017). For those nations that do take the Western approach to mental health, there is a paucity of resources dedicated to dealing with the issue. 75 % of all persons who suffer from mental health issues have no access to psychiatric or therapeutic care.
South Africa is one of the African nations that does take this approach but suffers from a lack of access to medical resources (WHO, 2014). The country is currently implementing the National Health Insurance Programme, which may provide more mental health access for its citizens. However, this is not expected to be fully implemented until 2025. In Nigeria, the WHO estimates that there are 40 to 60 million mentally ill persons, but there are only 130 psychiatrists in the country (Gberie, 2017). According to World Health Organization estimates, over half a million people suffer from depression and/or schizophrenia in Sierra Leone, but there are only 250 hospital beds for psychiatric patients in the entire country (WHO, 2012). And in Liberia, there are estimates that over 10 % of their 4 million person population suffers from mental illness (Gberie, 2017). Despite this, the country has only one psychiatric hospital, and only 80 beds total for all psychiatric patients.
Because of these cultural elements, the stigma around mental health is the prevailing theme in many parts of the region. This stigma can take many forms including prejudice, discrimination, and denial to common social practices such as marriage (Okasha, 2002). Oftentimes this stigma is extended to the entire family and can lead to complete social exclusion for that individual and their family (Okasha, 2002). For students living with mental health illness, it’s important to know these prevailing attitudes and be aware going in that the African perspective about your mental health may not match your own. In the more Western-influenced nations like Ghana and South Africa, you should be able to find comparable services to those found in the Western world, and overall, the approach to mental health is increasingly becoming more focused aligned with the Western approach. But it is still many years and many resources away from that.
Religion & Spirituality
“Religious diversity is not only a reality in Sierra Leone; it is widely seen and cherished as an asset on which to build community life from the local to the national level.” — UN Special Rapporteur
Sub-Saharan Africa has a myriad of different religious cultures. The primary religions practiced are the traditional powers: Christianity and Islam (Reich, 2016). However, there are regions where traditional and indigenous religions are practiced, as well as regions where other religions like Judaism and Hinduism are practiced as well (Chiorazzi, 2015).
The makeup of religious practice depends greatly on where you are. In Liberia and Ghana, the predominant religion is Christianity, with large but smaller groups of Muslims (Kondau, 2018). In Sierra Leone and Senegal, this is flipped. However, outside of certain regions of Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa has a predominant theme of religious tolerance. This is especially notable, in light of the history of conflict in the region due to ethnic and regional differences, that religion has rarely if ever been used in a divisive manner such as those.
Religious tolerance is observed in many ways. Participants of different religions have often remarked feeling comfortable praying and worshipping in the spiritual services and institutions of other religions. There are many interfaith marriages and celebrations of festivals, and conversion to different religions is common (Marshall, 2016). Students can expect to be able to practice their religion with little to no issue in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.