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

Family structure is another critical concern for business. In monistic societies, at least many African ones, the size of the extended family that will be seeking the financial help of a businessman can expand as his access to wealth increases. That is to say – the norm in the West whereby someone is primarily responsible only to their immediate nuclear family generally does not apply in Africa. Instead, extended family’s demands on a successful businessman can grow exponentially in a way that is bound to affect possibilities of re-investing into the expansion of a business. I have already above looked at the implications of monistic thinking being much the norm in Africa, whereas Westerners are dualistic. Coming back to issues of so called ‘corruption’ it has often been my experience here on the ground in Africa that Westerners are not required to engage in the types of corruption that is expected of Africans. This is related to a general awe of Whites in Black Africa. Such awe can certainly close some doors – especially of informal relationship. But it can also open others. Someone with white skin or clear European/North American identity (typically revealed through one’s accent) is much more likely to be trusted than a fellow African. Their words are taken differently; often with a much higher expectation that a verbal promise will be fulfilled in practice, for example. This awe of Whites opens doors to Westerners entering into business arrangements that would remain firmly closed to Africans.

To re-iterate; my main point in this section is that the above and other factors mean that a business model set up by a Westerner may not be one that an African person can imitate. For this reason, supposedly leading by example on the part of a Western businessman can often be a deception.


‘Vulnerable’ Business

The answer to the question of sustainability in business is in a sense easy. If, as appears to be the case, Africa’s following Westerners results in a trail of dependency, then Westerners need to determine what it is in their practice that is not sustainable in Africa. Then they should adjust accordingly. I have pointed to many of these factors above.

There are some things that a Westerner cannot do easily. For example, if one has fair coloured skin, then it is not easy to turn one’s skin black. What a Westerner can consciously do is to imitate and run their business without drawing on the ‘advantages’ that their white and European identity gives them. A very straightforward, but at the same time difficult way to do this, is to follow what we could call vulnerable mission practices. That is to initiate then to manage one’s business without taking advantage of one’s superior knowledge of European languages and access to outside resources. What a foreigner can do using only local languages and resources is much more likely to be something that a local can do as well. By operating in this way, one can be learning how business can succeed locally, and one may be setting an example that nationals can follow.

My reader may baulk at the above suggestion. It seems to cancel what are often the very things that a Westerner has to offer. Well, there of course is the problem and the source of the likelihood of leaving behind a string of dependency; the Westerner wants to succeed in business on a basis of that which they can do that nationals cannot.

I can perhaps just add that the above is an over-simplification. There are differences in ways of thinking and understanding (some would say ‘worldview’) between Westerners and Africans that will continue to be carried forward even by a Westerner who has refused the help of outside languages and resources. Fundamentally though, even if it remains difficult, bringing these kinds of differences into view rather than smothering them with heavy doses of money/foreign tongues, does begin make them visible, such that they can be tackled. Positively doing such can help nationals perceive what they ought to do. Negatively it can discourage them from practices that hinder business. Being bound to so-called ‘irrational’ taboos and witchcraft fears comes to mind by way of example.


Teaching the Mother Tongue

This section may seem a little tangential to my main argument. I include it as a means of pointing towards some understanding keys to looking at this whole issue in more depth. I do not have the space to fully explicate the argument that I want to here examine, but point my reader to Illich (1980).

People have traditionally had a kind of awe for sophisticated foreign-sounding languages, and a relative low evaluation of their own tongues. Hence in history, many respected religious practices have been engaged using obscure languages (Prah 2009:4-5). Up to 1500, ancient languages were studied and learned at depth through and with their grammars by people who studied them meticulously. Ironically the same scholars never turned the same attention to their indigenous tongues. That was until the Spaniard Nebrija came along. Nebrija made a revolutionary suggestion: that a people should be taught a standardised and clearly articulated version of their own language. This, says Illich, was to result in the creating of a platform of understanding that subsequently enabled the social and economic advances that we see ever mushrooming and spreading in the world today.

I was struck on reading Illich with parallels between what he describes in 15th century Europe with contemporary Africa. Many African people have expressed to me a low valuation of their own language, along with a high valuation and intense interest in learning a foreign language, typically (in Anglophone Africa) English. Many African people see economic development as something that others (original owners of these wonderful languages) can do for them. At the same time they are, by despising their own languages, missing the opportunity to understand themselves as they are on their own terms. According to my reading of Illich, a foundation for profound self-understanding is achieved when one studies oneself and one’s people. Such self-understanding can be turned into advantage in enabling, amongst other things, effective business practices. A prime means of encouraging business success without leaving a trail of dependency is to encourage people to understand themselves. As an outsider this means taking an interest in them-as-they-are using the means they use themselves; their language.

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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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