Is there Etiquette to be followed when visiting an African tribe?

Etiquette is the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group. Etiquette is a code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group. The French word étiquette, literally signifying a tag or label, was used in a modern sense in English around 1750. Travelers are general fascinated by human behaviour. Most travelers are interested in how people live, social dynamics, traditional customs and folklore of a certain group of people. Tribal visits are common on the tourist trail now, both in Africa and elsewhere and are ‘activities’ offered by many hotels and tour operators. Human beings are curious by nature according to

There’s a debate as to whether tribal visits are ethical or exploitative and how tribal cultures are suffering due to western influences. I’ve heard the words, ‘human safari’ used. Now I’m not talking about visits to tribes that have little or no contact with the outside world, because that brings about a whole different set of issues, too numerous to go into here. For example, traditional dances performed would have been saved for special occasions and are now performed for money. Such question the motive of tourism, is tourism ruining cultures? Or preserving them? The Maasai are a good case in point; the Maasai have endured the harshest of conditions. But the outside world is encroaching in on them. More and more land is now privately owned and indigenous people become displaced for tourism (game reserves and hotels) or to make way to build roads and for other reasons. So tourism is having a dramatic effect on Maasai culture.

Strangely, even Africans have limited understanding of tribal life across many villages in Africa. The Himba people of Namibia remain a mystery to Africans themselves especially those that reside in towns spread across Africa. The idea of an African ‘cultural experience’ sometimes makes Africans cringe. Its hard for Africans to be brutal honest that they also need to take tribal tours to get a better understanding of the continent. The mere thought of a tribal tour brings to mind superficial tribal dancing and local people forced into demeaning, stereotypical roles which most Africans do occasionally find demeaning. The conflict is usually that Africans have been too oppressed and dancing for strangers is up there in the league together with slavery, lynching, colonialism, neo colonialism etc.

Cultural villages — museums that showcase the different tribes and offer entertainment such as tribal dances — are one option for travelers who wish to learn about African cultures. However, that kind of tourism — camera-toting tourists snapping pictures of exotic-looking humans as a souvenir to send back home — reduces the person that is being photographed to an animal at the zoo. Furthermore according to, some tour companies believe that ” cultural villages can play a role in educating tourists about the architecture, art, food, music, dance, customs and folklore of a culture and as such can also be a good thing,”. Sue Snyman, program director for Children in the Wilderness, agreed that cultural villages offer a chance to raise awareness and increase people’s knowledge about other cultures in a setting that can, if managed correctly, prevent the commodification of culture.

Tribal visits or tours are a mere reflection of people seeking to get a real sense of Africa. The undiluted Africa. As the trend toward authentic, experiential tourism has been growing exponentially around the world in recent years, Africa has seen a strong demand for cultural tourism. But as more and more tourists seek a glimpse of the “real Africa,” controversy is growing over the question of how authentic these experiences can really be even in more remote parts of a continent that is rapidly modernizing. Chris Roche, marketing director for Wilderness Safaris, said that as more guests seek authentic cultural experiences, either in the form of an event or something entirely random and ad hoc, “the crux is that the experience [be] authentic and unique, never contrived, staged, performed, etc.” Truth is, It is not easy to offer clients a real experience that corresponds to their preconceived idea of “authentic.” “I think when most people say ‘authentic’ in terms of cultural travel experiences, they mean ‘traditional,’ with the implication that the lives of the people they are visiting remain unchanged by the modern world,” she said. “Unless you go far off the beaten path, this doesn’t really exist in many places in Africa, especially places where travelers have been for decades.”

Any tourist who nostalgically longs to see the 19th century image of the Masai warrior is being as unrealistic as a foreign visitor to America expecting to encounter men wearing stovepipe hats and speaking and looking like Abraham Lincoln. History lovers in particular have this romantic notion of African tribes. To most tourists, a Masai warrior carrying a cellphone seems inauthentic and culturally contaminated by the “West.” It MAY completely  go over their heads that a cellphone enables them to let other Masai know where there is water to graze their herd, stay in touch with other Masai villages and family members, connect with animal traders and alert park rangers of poachers.” Most Africa travel experts agree that for a true cultural encounter, travelers should move away from their role as a spectator and engage in an exchange.

According to, here are some important tips to keep in mind before you visit any tribe:  

  • Tribal visits provide vital income to help tribal people survive in today’s world. When you’re planning a visit, the most important thing is to ensure that the people you are visiting are treated fairly and that you do not contribute to the exploitation of vulnerable people.
  • Ensure that you are visiting a tribe that is happy to have tourists in their village.
  • Go with the mindset that this is a mutual learning experience. Ask questions, share things with them.
  • If you are travelling with a tour company, ask the company you are travelling with where the money goes. How much of the money is going to the village? Choose a company that works with and supports the village and does not exploit them.
  • If you are organizing your own trip with a driver, negotiate a separate price with the driver for his part and give your money directly to the village chief.
  • Ask if you can take photographs. Most people who open their village to tourists will be more than happy to let you take photograph, they are proud of their culture, but it’s always nice to be asked.
  • Read up on the tribe you are visiting and be aware of any culturally sensitive issues.
  • Be respectful – you’re in someone else’s home.

Here are some of the common guiding principles that I can generalize on but remember one thing: Africa has 54 countries and each of those countries has its own cultures, customs, values and individual habits. This is just my own assumptions based on the 30 countries I have been to in Africa. I must say that on some of the generalizations, I might be going a bit too far but here goes nothing:

  • Greeting – Hello and a Handshake: Greeting people in Africa is one of the most important things you can do.  A quick “hello,” paired with a handshake is a sufficient way to make a positive first impression with anyone. Hugs and kisses are a no go zone for most tribes in Africa. Just avoid them. Handshakes are safe and well understood.
  • Respect for elders: African cultural values are based on a foundation of the past and present, a leading reason why elders are so well respected.  Always acknowledge an elder, let them ask questions, and during mealtime elders are normally served first.  Visitors/Tourists should not be seen to be suggesting that this practice is outdated.
  • Pointing At Things: Different ethnic groups have different ways of pointing, but the method I usually employ is poking my chin in the right direction and widening my eyes.
  • Use of the Right Hand: It’s considered rude and an insult to use the left hand in most African cultures. Avoid using the left hand in most circumstances, even if you are left handed.
  • Silence is an African Value: Don’t be alarmed or nervous with spans of silence during African conversation.  When there’s something to be said, it will be said; when there’s nothing to be said, silence is perfectly fine.  There’s no need to feel uneasy during a period of silence in Africa, take the time just to enjoy the presence of others.
  • Time – A Little Less Important: Despite the use of clocks to tell “what time it is,” African clocks work differently; things fall into place as they unfold.  An African worldview does not focus far into the future, but dwells more on past events and whatever is happening currently.  Future scheduled times can’t be rushed and thinking so will only make one more and more frustrated.
  • Use Flexibility: Africa will teach you to be flexible. Closely relating to how future-time is of less importance, schedules aren’t always at the forefront of lifestyle.  If a plan gets shut down or changes drastically, there’s not always something you can do besides accept it and continue with a positive attitude.
  • Relationships Matter: With future-time a little less important, current time is of extreme value.  Meeting people and spending time with others to develop lasting relationships is an aspect of African culture that is truly cherished.
  • Receive a Gift with Both Hands: If someone graciously gives you a gift, a non-verbal way to show extreme thankfulness is to accept it with both hands outstretched.

The last one is DRESS CODE. It is important to know the appropriate dress code before visiting any place whether Europe, Asia, and that applies in Africa. Each tribe, village, district, region and country can have its specific dress codes, as a visitor or tourists please make sure you know the dress code, that applies….

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