Saga Tours of Mali - West Africa Adventure Travel
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So, what is West Africa like?

Culture shock is a term introduced in 1958 to describe the anxiety that may occur in an entirely new environment. It is generally used when living in a new culture, and not merely visiting, but some of its symptoms can appear even on a brief visit to a foreign country. Group travel can be pretty effective in cushioning the shock and preventing symptoms from occurring, but solo travelers are particularly susceptible to experiencing at least a mild form of culture shock.

However, anyone can experience it.

Nearly everyone believes, usually without being aware of it, that their culture has the best way of doing things. We all carry around our cultural baggage, which contains the values that are important to us and the patterns of behavior that are customary in our culture. After a while in a new environment, what started out as new and exciting can become irritating and unacceptable. That's culture shock setting in.

Preparing for and avoiding culture shock requires new perspectives. The most important mind-set to have is flexibility; be open-minded and those little irritations won't build up to resentment and anger. Try not to make value judgments on what you observe—behavior is cultural, and it has evolved over centuries. There's a good reason for every behavior to have evolved to its present form, as incomprehensible as it may be to outsiders. So be patient, and don't try too hard to understand; just accept and "go with the flow"; and don't forget your sense of humor because it can often salvage a difficult situation.

The best way to prevent culture shock or disappointment with your visit to a new culture is to have realistic expectations. Remember, African living standards and practices are different from those in your home country. Most African countries are underdeveloped and they do not have all the amenities and facilities that may be standard and taken for granted elsewhere. Delays are routine but everyone eventually gets to where they want to go; do not expect everything to run smoothly and on time.

Be advised that travel in West Africa is not luxury travel. What that means can vary, but remember that "best available" means just that: the best that is available is provided, but it is not the same standard as in more developed areas of the world. You will have everything you need for a safe and fascinating trip, but West Africa is an adventure travel destination, with vast cultural riches and natural wonders, but the man-made amenities have not yet caught up.

Below are some other components of travelling in West Africa—some of them will inevitably arise at some point during your trip. So read on, and begin preparing yourself for your West African adventure !

Physical Realities

First and foremost, know that West Africa's infrastructure is not as developed and not to be compared with that of northern, eastern, or southern Africa — West Africa has a long way to go.

Arrival at Bamako's Senou Airport will likely be the first shock encountered. It is a small facility, and a large plane full of travelers, plus the airport employees (immigration and health officials, baggage porters, tour operator representatives, etc.) can fill the arrivals area to over-flowing. The air-conditioning breaks down regularly, and the baggage is slow to arrive. Patience and good humor are essential from the first moments in West Africa.

Transportation — is quite underdeveloped; the roads are bad and some aren't paved. Distances are long, and they generally seem even longer on rough roads — no smooth interstate highway system here. A typical tour can cover some 1800 kilometers (nearly 1200 miles). Most vehicles are older than visitors are used to, and road delays are to be expected.

Driving after dark can be hazardous due to local conditions — narrow and unlit roads, numerous pot holes and speed bumps, pedestrians, cyclists, and free-ranging animals on the road, all nearly invisible after dusk. Most of Mali's road accidents happen after dark, and the fatality rate is often quite high due to lack of timely and appropriate medical care. We avoid driving after dark as much as possible.

It is not unusual for vehicle air-conditioning to stop working, or for it to be turned off if the engine is working flat out.

Internal air travel also leaves a lot to be desired, with an inadequate number of flights, delays and outright cancellations of flights at the last minute and no explanation given (frequently due to insufficient passenger numbers), and often no refunds provided (you need to come back "tomorrow").

Despite all of this, visitors do manage to get to all of the various sites they've come to see; but patience and flexibility are key factors in getting around West Africa.

Accommodations — are very basic and no-frills except in the capital cities, where a modest standard of luxury can be found. In the interior, expect the hotels to be small—most are only ground-level. Hotel rooms can likewise be small and drab; many but not all have private bathrooms. A double room means one double bed or occasionally two twin beds; there are no rooms with two double beds. Triple rooms are rare and generally reserved for couples travelling with a young child (and the third 'bed' is often just a mattress on the floor)—three adults are expected to require two rooms.

Some of the smaller towns and villages may not have electricity; some hotels have electrical generators, but they don't run all night. When power outages occur, water pumping stations are also affected, and there may be a subsequent temporary lack of water until power is restored. Where there is air conditioning, it may not be silent.

If hotel accommodations are a key factor in choosing your holiday destination, you will likely be disappointed in many of West Africa's smaller cities and towns.

Food and meals — International cuisine is standard in all capital cities. Elsewhere, you will have the opportunity to try local dishes, including the marvelous freshwater fish, capitaine. However, menus will likely not be as varied as you are used to—hotel breakfasts are typically continental: bread, butter and jam, with coffee or tea (full American breakfasts are the exception, not the African norm, generally available only in capital cities). Fresh fruit and vegetables are limited to what is in season. Cold drinks will also be of limited variety, and they may not be icy cold. Vegetarians should be prepared for the limited variety available, as vegetarianism is not practiced locally; strict vegetarians should consider bringing protein supplements.

Restaurant meals will likely be more expensive than you expect. See Food and meals on our Travel Tips page.

Environment and sanitation — West Africa's Sahelian climate is hot, dry, and dusty. See our About Mali page for a chart of average temperatures by month. Even in the relatively cool months, visitors are likely to find the weather to be hot. And except for the rainy months, dust is everywhere: a dust-free environment, even indoors, would require hourly dusting. Traveling on unpaved roads raises a lot of dust, and locals often wear a turban when traveling, to avoid inhaling dust.

Visitors may be shocked by the casual disposal of garbage or waste water. Yet all yards (private homes, hotels, etc.) are swept daily (generally raising quite a cloud of dust), in an effort to have a clean environment. Part of the sanitation issue lies in the local definition of garbage, which is generally thought of as organic, food-related waste; paper, plastics, and other hallmarks of "progress" are not even considered as trash that needs to be properly disposed of. In fact, many/most commercial waste items are reused and/or recycled. But the streets and marketplaces can be very dirty by western standards.

Social Issues and Behaviors

Greetings — are the foundation of Malian society; even asking for directions without greeting someone first, and inquiring about their health and their family, is considered quite rude. Shaking hands is almost universal, "almost" because some strict Muslim men do not shake hands with women, so women should not proffer their hand automatically. But everyone should automatically say "hello, how are you" before launching into the real topic.

Gifts and begging — Visitors sometimes bring gifts to share with local populations, but such kind gestures often have unforeseen consequences, from rude demands to outright theft. In West African cultures, the "have-nots" are entitled to ask for things (i.e. beg) from the "haves"; it's not considered wrong or rude, on the contrary, it's considered normal—part of the traditional African extended family system of social welfare. Alms-giving is also one of the pillars of Islam. All theft is vigorously condemned.

We try to inform the local people that asking for things is disturbing to foreign visitors; but sometimes their need gets the better of them, especially if they see gifts or money being distributed open-handedly—they will want their share and no African will fault them for asking; the mentality is "nothing ventured, nothing gained."

A polite refusal to give something won't offend anyone. And it is best not to show your personal things, nor any gifts you may want to offer. Talk with your guide about the most appropriate manner and place to make a gift or donation—it's always best to do so with a person-in-charge (school director, maternity midwife, etc.) and cash is always the most appreciated and useful gift.

If you prefer not to offer cash, it is better to purchase your gifts locally — you'll save space in your luggage, and more importantly, you'll contribute to the local market economy. Kola nuts used to be the gift of choice for village elders or local officials, but like everyone else they need to make a living, so cash gifts (even token amounts) are much more appreciated than kola nuts.

Local children can be difficult to deal with—too often they have observed and experienced the fact that that asking for things can work. If you give coins or candy to children you can expect to be mobbed, and there will be great disappointment if the items run out and someone didn't get theirs.

Tipping — Tipping is traditional, part of the indigenous culture and way of life, it is not something expected of visitors only. A small tip is a traditional way of expressing one's appreciation and will be highly esteemed by the recipient. When a tip is proffered by a foreign visitor, it is taken as a gesture of respect, not only for the recipient but towards the local culture as well. Tipping can sometimes practically become bribery, although locally it is considered nothing more than "respect" duly shown to authority figures.

Tipping of tour staff is covered in our Travel Tips page.

Local purchases — Related to the above is the inevitable "encouragement" you will experience to buy, buy, buy. Local populations are poor, and those who eke out a living by selling crafts or souvenirs desperately hope that visitors will buy something. A polite "no" may need to be firm, yet remain polite.

This is a complex issue anchored in poverty and the above-mentioned mentality of "nothing ventured, nothing gained." If you are not interested in purchasing something, it is best not to look at the items. Or conversely, if someone insists on showing you something "for the pleasure of the eyes" then do have a look, then thank them for showing you the items and walk away; the usual response to this behavior is to thank you for taking the time to look.

If you do want to purchase something, remember that bargaining is part of the local culture, but it should not be a reason to take advantage of the local poverty—offer what you consider to be a fair price, the seller will undoubtedly be very satisfied with that and you will have contributed to his family's welfare.

Solo Women Travelers - try to travel with a friend — it can be a safety net, but mainly it will simply make your trip more enjoyable.

You probably already know that you will draw more attention than any man traveling alone; you should also know that inferences will be drawn as to why you are traveling alone, ranging from "she's very independent" to "she's looking for a man." A woman traveling alone will have men approaching her in the hopes of establishing a relationship. So it's best to dress conservatively. The fact that you are a foreign visitor means of course that you are "rich" and a rich additional co-wife would a welcome addition to any West African polygamous family. Male-female relationships can be platonic, but there is always the hope that it will go well beyond that.

Solo women travelers are not in any particular danger but the annoyances, if not constantly handled with diplomacy, grace and humor, can really impact an otherwise fascinating and enjoyable trip. Having a traveling companion, man or woman, deflects a lot of unwanted attention.

Responsible tourism — try to be aware of the impact you are having on the local environment, social as well as natural. Taking care to dispose of trash properly is an excellent thing, but there is a lot more to being a responsible visitor:

Police controls / check-points — on African roads there are some check-points where all vehicles are required to stop, and the occupants identify themselves. This is just a routine procedure, although it may seem intrusive to someone who is not used to this.

The local personnel may be police, military, or customs officials. They are on the watch for stolen vehicles, counterfeit goods, illegally hunted game-meat or illegally harvested firewood, or even guns and drugs.

When stopped for one of these controls, the best response is compliance—if you appear to challenge their authority they will only make the procdure longer and more unpleasant. They have the authority to stop all vehicles, check all vehicle papers (registration, insurance, laisser-passez) and inspect the identificaion of all vehicle occupants (passports). If they suspect anything amiss, they may detain the vehicle and conduct a thorough search of the entire vehicle and all its contents. If questioned, keep your answers short, true, and just repeat yourself if they ask again; do not make your case "interesting" or you will be delayed for as long as you are of interest.

Check-points are a routine part of travel in most African countries; do not be alarmed, just "go with the flow", and let your guide and driver deal with it—it is routine for them and you will be quickly on your way.

Self-expression — sooner or later someone will laugh or shout, and it will seem inexplicable or inappropriate to you; just know that West Africans in their own social circles feel free to express their emotions, they don't even think about lowering their voices, neither out of concern for others' sensibilities, nor for their own privacy.

Hissing at someone is a standard and perfectly acceptable way to get their attention. At some point, you will probably be the target of some hissing — do not consider it rude, as it is not intended that way at all. Kissing noises, on the other hand, are definitely considered rude; you should not respond, as any reaction on your part will only reward and encourage the behavior.

People will often avoid making eye contact; this is done out of courtesy and deference to a superior—for example, children may not look at their father when he speaks to them. This custom is not so prevalent in modern society, but don't be surprised if you waiter takes your order without glancing at you—he's not being surly, just polite.

Slavery, social kinship and 'savoir vivre' — Slavery existed for centuries, and especially in isolated areas, some groups descended from slaves are still recognized as being a slave caste. There is much joking about who is whose slave because slavery was a daily reality in West Africa, so it is not a delicate issue and you may well overhear someone calling someone else his slave. Likewise some ethnic groups consider themselves each other's cousins (e.g. the Malinke and the Dogon people) because of shared experiences in their history.

Malian society is stratified by gender; women and men who attend the same social events (weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals, etc.) do so separately. Malian society is also predominantly Muslim, and this also serves to reinforce gender stratification.

Many mosques, including the Grande Mosque in Djenne, are off-limits to non-Muslims. For the rest, be sure to take off shoes before entering.