Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Moving to Africa- Questions and Advice

This is my final post in a mini-series on tips and advice for moving to Africa. You can read the first post on general packing tips here and the second post on specific items to bring here. This entry will provide some questions to think through before you go and some general advice for easing the transition to your new locale.

At least in Nigeria there are certain questions I’m asked over and over and over again. Ones I wouldn’t necessarily be asked in America upon meeting someone for the first time, and certainly not with the frequency they are asked here. There are not right or wrong answers to these questions, but I think it’s helpful to think through what your answers are before you leave, so you aren’t taken aback or caught off guard. These questions include (in no particular order):

~Can I have/borrow some money? Think about what your answer would be if it’s someone in your office, a child on the street, and your neighbor. Think about what your answer would be if they ask for $5 or $50 or $500.

~Can you help my son/daughter/cousin/uncle get to America? This may mean helping with visa forms/writing an invitation letter, or it may mean help with finances, so clarifying what the person means (if they’re serious) is the first step. Think about what your answer would be if it’s a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend, or your supervisor.

~What religion are you? Or, if you’re in a place like southern Nigeria where most people are “Christian”: What church do you go to? Get to know the religious climate of the place where you’re going. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, agnostic, atheist or ascribe to any other belief system, how will your beliefs “fit” in that environment?

~What do you think of Obama or ? I find that many people in the world pay far more attention to American politics than many Americans do. If you don’t know anything, you should probably start learning, because people will have an opinion and expect you to have one, too. Especially if it’s an election year.

~Where is your husband? This is asked if you’re single and appear to be over the age of 20 and will be followed by Why aren’t you married? if you say you’re single, particularly if you’re a woman. If might also be followed with Will you marry me?  depending on the speaker and your locale. Obviously ideas about marriage differ across cultures, but if you are a single woman, it would be good to understand the customs and culture around marriage.

~Can I have your number? I’ve noticed that people give out their number much more casually here than at home, and people- especially guys- often ask for your number the first time they meet you. Thus, I’d recommend thinking through whether or not you want to do that and if not, how to respond. The “mobile” culture will likely differ depending on where you are, but because this happened in both Romania and Nigeria I wanted to make note of it.

Before you move to a new place, everyone will weigh in with their two cents and advice about what to do/not do, and at least for me it was hard to sort through what was useful and what was not. The fact of the matter is that each person is unique, each experience is distinct, every location has its peculiarities, and the combination of a given person in a given location with all the variables in that person’s mindset and past experiences, as well as what they experience in the new place, makes for endless experiences. So in the end you just need to go and sort things out for yourself. However, the following four tidbits are the best pieces of advice I received, and have proved to be the most useful overall themes no matter where I’ve lived or traveled.

~Have a sense of humor. This is probably the most frequent advice I received, and it’s proved to be the most useful. You need to be able to laugh at yourself. You will make mistakes, you will do and say totally stupid or culturally inappropriate things, and you will unquestionably make a fool of yourself in some way. You need to be ok with this and embrace it. Humor and laughter diffuse so many awkward, tense, or annoying situations, so keep a light heart and don’t take yourself too seriously.

~Be flexible. Things change. Sometimes frequently. Sometimes unexpectedly. The project you were supposed to help implement upon arrival hasn’t even been approved by the IRB/central office/manager yet. You arranged an apartment prior to arriving, but when you show up you find out the landlord gave the apartment to another person. Your supervisor leaves for a new job one month after you arrive. You need to adapt and adjust. It’s hard. It’s often times frustrating. But in order to thrive, you need to be able to do this.

~Find ways to build “life givers” into your routine. What energizes you? What brings you joy? You may not be able to do it the *exact* way as you would at home but get creative and try to figure out how to build that into your new life in some way. In the haze and craze of transitioning, you might feel it’s easier to just “get by,” but I believe the transition will be much faster and smoother if you can find some ways to incorporate some of those energizing joy-bringers right from the start.

~Take time to rest. Even if you don’t realize it, in a new place your brain is on overdrive all the time. New food, new environment, new people, new stimuli abound. In order to avoid burning out, you need to be intentional about taking the time you need to process, rest, and be alone. This will almost certainly be more time than you need in your home country, and you need to be ok with that, not feel guilty about it. If you’re on a two-week service trip, you can go go go from morning until night, but if you want to last six months or six years, you need to rest and recharge as needed.

With that I’ll bring this post to a close. If you have any advice or questions to add, please feel free to leave a comment! I hope this mini-series has been helpful to anyone who is moving to Africa, or even just a new and different culture. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but am glad to be able to share of what I’ve learned along the way.

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