Wednesday, 10 June 2009

African Flavour

This week I am attending the World Economic Forum on Africa event in Cape Town, South Africa. WEF events are remarkably similar, whether they take place in Davos, China or Africa but this one has a definite African flavour.

Mind you, it's a subtle aroma rather than a full blown, assault on the senses type of flavour. Rather like Cape Town itself. I met an English couple in the hotel this evening and the wife said "this is my first trip to Africa". I felt like saying "Lady, you think Cape Town is Africa? You ain't seen nothing yet".

On the surface this WEF event is identical in look and feel to the others I have been to, whether in Switzerland or China. The "WEF Welcomes You..." banners at the airport, the meet-and-greet staff who direct you to the WEF branded mini-buses. The 5* hotels chosen, the shuttle buses to the conference centre, your WEF bag with the participants book on registration, the security badge are all identical from country to country. Inside the conference centre they have literally lifted up the whole of the Davos look and feel and plonked it down on a different continent thousands of miles away.

However just below the surface there are a couple of differences. Not many, but one or two that give it that slightly distinct flavour.

For example, at WEF events the dress code is business casual. That usually means open necked shirt and jacket, or even shirt and no jacket, particularly amongst tech guys. But at WEF Africa business casual means smart suit and tie and properly polished shoes. In fact it means exactly the same as business formal. When you are going to a business meeting in Africa, if you want to be taken seriously you wear a suit and tie and that's that.

Interestingly, out of the 800+ delegates here from all over Africa not one man (so far) is wearing traditional African attire. Everyone is in Western suits and ties. That's quite unusual really and tells me two things. One is that the delegates are not entirely comfortable with the environment. They don't "own" it. They are guests at this event on their own continent. Secondly it tells me that there are not many Nigerians here, because if there was a strong Nigerian contingent you would see the brightly coloured flowing agbada's being worn with pride. Nigerian's "own" wherever they happen to be at the time, they wear what they like, they will talk as loud as they like and if you don't like it "you can go to hell, blorry idiot".

Some of the women are wearing traditional outfits though, the most notable being Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the World Bank Managing Director (pictured above) who ALWAYS wears her traditional outfits with pride. Ngozi is a very impressive lady. I have seen her speak on several occasions and she is a match for anyone. Today she shared the stage with the likes of President Jacob Zuma and Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, and she more than held her own.

The other African thing that happens here is that the audience applaud after every speaker makes a comment, however short. This is traditional African respect - you are in the presence of your "seniors" and betters, so if they honour you by speaking to you then you should show your appreciation. African's are quite formal, you know. This is something that is not well understood by non-Africans, but the formalities of greeting correctly, showing respect to your elders and knowing your place are deeply ingrained in African culture.

This can sometimes prove an unexpected problem in a Western setting. For example, a young man brought up within a mildly traditional African family will show respect for an older man by looking down rather than looking him straight in the eye, shaking hands carefully, sometimes with two hands and generally transmitting a tone of subserviance. The younger man doesn't actually feel particularly subservient but that's how you treat your elders. Now if that young man goes for a job interview in London, where you are supposed to stride in, hand outstretched looking your interviewer in the eye and talk to someone 30 years your senior as if you "are mates", well he just doesn't stand a chance.

Greetings are all important too. The more junior person greets first and then there can be a lengthy to and fro of greetings that can quite easily take 5 minutes, before any real conversation starts. For example, in my father's area (Afuze, Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria) it will go something like this

Ah hello Sir

Hello boy

How are you sir?


That's good. How are you Sir, still fine I hope?

I am still fine boy. Nothing has changed since we last spoke

That's good news Sir. And the wife Sir, how is she, Sir?

She is fine, boy

The wife is fine, Sir? That is good. Fine is she, Sir?

Yes, boy, she is fine

Good, good. And you Sir, you are fine?

Yes boy, fine

Good. Anyway, I was just passing and thought I'd say hi, Sir

Ok, boy

(silence ensues for a few minutes)

Anyway, Sir, I will be going

Ok, boy

But before I go, I just wanted to ask, how you were Sir?

Fine, boy

And the wife

She's fine too, boy

Ok, Sir, I will be going

Ok boy

(this can go on for several days until one or the other of the participants faints with hunger, allowing the other to sneak off, unless someone else arrives in which case it starts all over again)

So, this WEF event in Africa has a definite if subtle African aroma. It's sort of in Africa but not quite in Africa. It's more "on" Africa than "in" Africa. But that's okay, at least the challenges that the continent faces are getting some attention by an influential group of people and that's got to be a good thing.


Reader said...

Very interesting read, although its also an unfortunate reminder that most of us at one time or another must discover these subtle or not so subtle cultural differences the hard way.

Just out of curiosity, what strategy did you adopt to greet such high profile figures?

Tom Ilube said...

Ah, I adopted maximum African respect. I know my "seniors" when I see them. The only exception was when I bumped into President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and his bodyguard in the Gent's urinal. I decided that extended, formal greeting was probably inappropriate in that scenario so I just smiled weakly and got on with the business at hand, so as to speak :)

Reader said...

Haha, yes I can see how shaking his hand may have been a little akward!