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Doing Business in Africa: How Culture Changes How We Work Together

A slightly more difficult point to explain is African people’s proclivity towards feasting. Marcel Mauss (1967) noticed a central role for feasting and celebrations in many non-Western communities. From Mauss’ research, a feast is not simply an excuse for a knees-up; it is a central and in many ways necessary part of the normal peaceful functioning of many pre-modern communities (Mauss 1967:10). Failure to attend a feast can be like declaring war (1967:11) or conceding that one is a witch (Shamala 2008:135).[1] A system whereby big men compete with one another by setting up elaborate feasts self-perpetuates and becomes the vital focal point or hub for numerous activities, if not the whole of social life. The arranging of feasts typically requires the mobilisation of all available resources (Maranz 2001:50-51). That may include resources that are supposedly earmarked for other priorities. The use of such resources for funding feasts and celebrations is a major part of what is in the West known as misappropriation of funds. (For more on feasts see Harries, in press.)


What is business?

In dealing with Africa, a Westerner is always involved in translation. There are very few monolingual African people in Africa. The language African people use to engage in trade with Westerners is for the vast majority neither their first language, mother language, nor heart language. It is not always realised that because of this African people’s understanding of (say) English is invariably affected, if not determined, by indigenous understandings. The rules and customs of trade may be very different according to indigenous custom than in native English-speaking countries. For example, negotiation on price is much more widely practiced in much of Africa than in England. Another example that is significant for a lot of business relationships is that African people are particularly prone to trying to conceal the wealth or resources that they have (Maranz 2001:139). Non-disclosure or a wrong disclosure of information can be preferred in Africa. Amongst the reasons for this is that revealed facts can increase the likelihood of magical attack that it is feared could in turn deplete accumulated resources. This is because jealousy acting through mysterious powers is interpreted as witchcraft attack. Such a lack of openness can appear to be deceitful. It can contribute to differences in levels of trust between members of a community in Africa, where mystical forces abound, as against in dualistic Europe that has been influenced by, amongst other things, centuries of commitment to the Christian faith.

It is worth re-emphasising that the very widespread use of non-indigenous languages in business contexts in which Westerners are involved conceals information. The status quo in much of Africa in which a non-native language is used in formal business relationships easily leads to numerous misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings are especially sharp between Westerners and Africans whose use of the language concerned is rooted in vastly different contexts. Close comprehension of African business-customs requires a depth of cultural knowledge that can only be acquired through a close familiarity with African languages and how they are used.

Something that could be known in English as ‘magic’ infiltrates a lot of African relationships. Having mentioned ‘magic’, it is only fair to add that Western people’s widely held implicit belief that their own language penetrates other cultures like a legendary silver bullet is in a way just as ‘magical’ as are African beliefs. The belief that a language can have an objective quality that crosses intercultural spaces may be as deeply rooted in belief in magic as are African beliefs in the efficacy of mystical forces. This is because language and context always mutually engage and determine one another. Language is never a ‘silver bullet’ (Gutt 2008:15).

Is a lady who spends two hours a week sitting on the side of the road selling oranges that have fallen from her tree a “business-woman”? To Western uses of English, perhaps she is not, but in Africa quite likely yes: for example in Dholuo, a language of Western Kenya, doing business is most often rendered as loko hala. (This could be translated back into English as “turning profit”.) An African woman selling oranges on the side of the road, dhako moloko hala, could easily be described as jahala which seems to be in English ‘businesswoman’ or businessman. The western use of the term business tends to presuppose a role for bureaucracy – some kind of superior rational planning processes and procedures designed for ongoing perpetuation of the process concerned (Weber 1947:329-337, Bendix 1977:426). Weber suggests that the basic nature of peoples thinking about business and economics was once very different than it is now (Bendix 1977:424-426). So also Henaff, who points out that for many centuries retail trading and certain other trades were very much despised by the wider community (2010:75). We can add that there were once many traditional prohibitions of usury (Exodus 22:25). Given the historical hegemony of such objections to what may now in the West be considered normal ‘business’ practice, we should not be surprised to find parallel contemporary issues in certain parts of the world.

Other questions regarding ‘what is business’ surely relate to the link between family and one’s activities. What for a family business is normal, preferring family members, is in some other contexts known as nepotism. This is very much related to the question of trust and honesty. Perhaps there are circumstances when it is only family members who can truly be trusted. Finally, something I’ve considered in more detail elsewhere, questions arise regarding the compatibility of business with Christian ministry (Harries 2014). Paul’s preferred activity of tent-making (Acts 18:3) presumably kept him close to and accessible to people and able to listen and talk to them as he manoeuvred with his needle. Other styles of business activity, that function on the back of European languages, that take a lot of time doing high-pressure administrative activities while confined to computer and office are rather different; they are ways of cutting oneself off from indigenous contexts of witness and discipleship. The latter style of business easily associates its executives with the higher classes in a community that tends already to be Europeanised. This means that any approach to the Gospel will not be contextualised to any non-European people (Harries 2014). This leads us to the next section of this article.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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