If you are considering or have already made the decision to study abroad in Africa, you deserve some major kudos. Even though students are catching on to the rich experience and affordability of studying in Africa, it is still rather off the beaten path. No matter what, spending an extended amount of time studying in and getting to know your host culture will reward you in unexpected ways, but at times can be somewhat of a challenge.
The most popular countries in Africa for study abroad include Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco. After you've done your homework to select an awesome program in Africa that fits your academic goals and interests, it's time to start preparing to study abroad. Make things easier on yourself and avoid these 9 common mistakes students make while studying in Africa.
1. Packing an REI wardrobe
Many students coming to Africa have this idea that life will be rugged, dirty, and something of an extended camping trip. This results in a tendency to stuff suitcases with quick dry t-shirts, zip-off pants, and other REI-esque outdoors wear. While some of this can be useful – quick dry clothes are great when you have to hand wash clothes in rainy season – you probably won’t end up wearing any of this on an everyday basis. Especially if you’re in an urban area you’re better off packing regular street clothes. Also, don’t forget that looking good is important in a lot of African cultures, so having a nicer outfit or two will show people that you respect their customs and yourself.
On the other hand, some camping gear, like headlamps for frequent power outages, rain jackets, quick-dry towels, and Swiss army knives, are handy items to pack. Lots of sunscreen isn’t a bad idea either, since it’s sometimes much more expensive than at home.
2. Thinking Africa is the middle-of-nowhere
Similar to the first point, first time travelers to Africa frequently have this misconception that all of Africa is remote, off-the-grid, and essentially the middle of nowhere. While it’s true that some areas are still totally detached from the globalization and the rest of the world, most of the places where students will end up living are more connected than you’d think.
American pop music has infiltrated African nightlife, a growing number of Africans have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you should be able to buy any personal essentials you need, (which also means don’t over pack by bringing a years worth of shampoo – they have shampoo in Africa.)
3. Not taking proper precautions against getting sick
In some African countries seemingly Victorian illnesses like cholera or the black plague still exist. In most, malaria is a problem. And unfortunately, it’s a rare individual who spends a lengthy amount of time in Africa without ever once getting diarrhea, worms, parasites, giardia (which is transmitted through fecal matter), or other stomach issues. Generally medicine is cheap and your program should provide you with contacts for a western-standard doctor in whichever city you are studying in, but prevention is more important.
Avoid this by consulting a doctor about anti-malarials before you go, washing produce with bleached water, and sticking to freshly cooked street food. Most importantly though, don’t let the idea of getting sick scare you from studying in Africa. Usually it’s nothing a few days of rest and some TP can’t solve.
4. Assuming it’s hot everywhere in Africa
Even if you do end up in a spot in Africa that actually is hot all the time, many areas are at a higher elevation (Nairobi for example) or at a longitude far from the equator (Cape Town) and get cold enough to need warm clothing. Avoid freezing your butt off and pack a sweater. Being cold is no fun, but being cold with no central heating is worse.
If you're hoping to do some tent camping when exploring the wilds of Africa, you'll definitely want to pack gear to make those nights in the desert as warm and comfortable as possible. Don't forget to consider the season you'll be studying in Africa, as well - summer's back home might be winters there!
5. Taking personal space for granted
Americans are so accustomed to having their “personal bubble” – nobody gets too close in public transportation unless you have to, we don’t stand too close to our friends when we talk, and we honor the idea of privacy. When studying in Africa, be prepared to have your personal bubble popped and privacy become a foreign concept. In some places, like Senegal, reading might be seen as antisocial and your host family might want to actively help you with your homework.
This can be a hard adjustment coming from a university culture that tends to tune out the world when exam time rolls around, but students should try not to let it bother them. It’s the norm.
6. Encouraging begging
If you have never been faced with overt poverty before, it can be heartbreaking to live somewhere rampant with street children and beggars. Although this ‘mistake’ might be more of a subjective opinion for this one, supporting begging by giving money or candy to people who live on the streets hurts more than it helps.
Not only does it encourage a reliance on handouts, and therefore is not a sustainable solution to poverty, but it perpetuates the stereotype that all foreigners are rich (which gets us ripped off, robbed, and resented).
If you truly want to help, consider volunteering with a local NGO, orphanage, or youth center once or twice a week in addition to your studies. Avoid simply giving things away.
7. Having misconceptions about technology
While studying abroad in Senegal in 2007, I turned in the only handwritten term paper of my life, and my only connection to home was a cyber café with a goat in it, but technology has come a long way in the past five years. Cellphones are everywhere, and the iPad and other tablets have made their way into the African consumer market. Most cell phone companies even have data plans or USB sticks with dial-up internet you can use on your computer.
That said, bringing a laptop, kindle, or an unlocked smart phone (which you can buy already unlocked on Amazon.com, have unlocked before you go, or after arriving for cheap) are great for staying in touch, entertainment, and getting work done (but avoid overdosing on technology while studying abroad). Do be aware that petty theft rates are high – so you may want to consider insurance or bringing cheaper electronics –and internet is often still slow and/or unreliable.
8. Working on "America Time" rather than "Africa Time"
Africans frequently reference ‘Africa Time’ – which means things run slower, people are usually late, and busses have no timetables – in a joking manner, but it’s a thing. Trying to force things to function on ‘America Time’, or punctually in other words, will only frustrate you. Instead, go with the flow and be mentally prepared for long waits and people showing up late. Heck, go ahead and show up late yourself.
9. Being too individualistic or independent
Especially for American students, where finally leaving home and entering university symbolizes ultimate freedom, it can be difficult to move to Africa and find some of new-found liberties as a college student taken away. For example, you may have to dress more conservatively, sign an agreement not to drive a vehicle, and if you are staying with a host family, revert to the old “Mom, can I go out with my friends tonight? Pleeeease?” habits of high school. Depending on the country, alcohol may also be illegal and walking alone after dark dangerous.
It can be difficult to move to Africa and find some of your new-found liberties as a college student taken away... but in most cases, these losses of freedom are there to protect your safety.
Furthermore, community is more important than individualism, and this means you might not do as much by yourself anyways. In most cases, these losses of freedom are there to protect your safety, so try to embrace rather than fight them.
Avoid these common mistakes when traveling to Africa to study abroad, and you'll not only be delighted by the beautiful continent before you, but also enchanted by the relationships and memories that abound!
First time travelers to Africa frequently have this misconception that all of Africa is remote, off-the-grid, and essentially the middle of nowhere. While it's true that some areas are still totally detached from the globalization and the rest of the world, most of the places where students will end up living are more connected than you'd think.Photo Credits: milla_, The School for Field Studies (SFS), Steve Jurvetson, and Alex Ferroggiaro.