11 August 2014

Cultural Differences #3: The Sharing of Space, Possessions, and Knowledge

African Friends 
and Money Matters  
by David Maranz

This post contains selected excerpts from the book:

Africans readily share space and things, 
but are possessive of knowledge.

Westerners readily share knowledge, 
but are possessive of space and things.

“Sharing brings a full stomach; selfishness brings hunger.” 
~ Congolese proverb

In Africa, people are almost constantly with others and avoid being alone. They prefer to work in groups while farming, on jobs, or in the kitchen - in fact, virtually all the time. If someone prefers to be alone to a noticeable extent, they are considered strange, antisocial, or even to be feared. Privacy can be achieved by simply not addressing nearby people and not being addressed by them for a certain time; in other words - being left alone even while in the presence of others. They have social, but not spatial privacy. For Westerners, being alone means occupying a certain space all alone, requiring both spatial and social separation from others.

The giving, borrowing, and loaning of resources in Africa shows interdependence. It means living in community rather than in isolation. Those who refuse to share, give, and loan their resources are considered selfish and disdainful of their friends or relatives. Africans consider their way of life to be superior to the Western emphasis on personal possessions and personal rights above responsibility to others.

If something is not being actively used, it is considered a ‘surplus’ and is available for their use. If you do not have one, or have less, then the owner should give it or some of it, to the one who has none or less. This can apply to anything from personal possessions, money, supplies, and equipment. If the owner does not yield to the request, they will be considered selfish, ungenerous, insensitive, or even not a friend.

Those who have more find creative ways to avoid this; for instance, hiding some possessions. Or they may gradually put their money (as they earn it) into a fixed asset, like a building, to keep it from being borrowed. Thus, one of the most common sights in Africa are partially built houses and buildings.

For Africans, there is a general concept that certain categories of information and knowledge are private. When it comes to what they know, many facts are closely guarded and will be revealed only in very measured ways. In contrast, Westerners share knowledge much more freely than Africans. For example, one of our beliefs is that the dissemination of scientific and technical information benefits society.

We also share our personal thoughts more freely than Africans. For example, a news reporter might ask someone how they felt after losing their house in a tornado and the interviewee would comfortably share their innermost feelings.

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