Lessons From Another Culture

A gap year is an opportunity to experience another culture and discover how staggeringly diverse our world is. You'll soon find that what is considered normal changes as you leave our shores.

Burkina Faso is a land historically untouched by our culture and marvellously different social expectations have developed. Calling a lady fat is a flattering compliment; husbands and wives eat separately; and trying to engage in some light hearted conversation over dinner can cause huge offence to a host.

However, culture being different doesn't necessarily mean being worse. Westerners will be flummoxed and frustrated by many expectations in West Africa, but some cultural ticks might just make our lives better here in the UK.

Here are a few that struck me in my 18 months in Burkina Faso…

1. People matter more than time

Giving a helping hand

It's 11:55 and class starts at 12:00. You've got a bit caught up at home. Where's that exercise book gone? I'm sure my sandals were under the table before. Are all the windows shut?

Finally, you get out of the house and it's time for an epic run to the college. Mo Farah's got nothing on you as you charge down the street like a man possessed.

And then you hear someone call out your name. "Hey! Jon!!"

'Not now', you think, 'not now'.

"Jon! It's Adama. How's it going?"

In England, we'd shout a brief response, offer a casual wave in their direction and be on our way to class without breaking a stride.

In Burkina, this would be unthinkable. It'd be rude to the nth degree, and it's because in Burkina people matter more than time. You would stop, ask how their family are doing, find out if they've had a busy week at work and maybe have a little bit of a tease that their team (probably Chelsea) had lost… again.

This isn't a green flag for arriving late everywhere, that'd just be daft. It's a question of where our priorities lie. I wonder how different our world would be if we cared about people as much as we cared about our work.

Next time you're wandering through the High Street and bump into someone you know, why not stop and be a bit Burkinabé.

2. Share and share alike


In a sense, Chandler and Joey from Friends are extremely African. They love sharing.

They are extremely comfortable asking each other for money and talking about giving it back is almost a laughing matter. There's even an episode where Chandler invents the game of 'Cups' to trick Joey into taking money from him.

There is a sense of community in Burkina Faso that we can hardly imagine in the UK and it can be very clearly seen in money matters. There is no shame in asking your family or your neighbour for some cash if you're in real need and they're almost obliged to give it to you if they can. After all, they want to bless you and there will inevitably be a time when they will call on your help.

We're all in this together.

I wouldn't recommend the game of 'Cups' as the best way to direct your new sense of generosity though as the money could soon move on to the next crafty friend:

Joey: Ross was getting the Cup Card, the D-Cup, the Sitting-Down Bonus! Meanwhile, I didn't even get half a cup! Nothin'!
Chandler: Oh man!
Joey: And he never played before either! Y'know what I think? I think: Beginner's luck - very important in Cups!

3. Respect your elders

Jon meeting one of his elders

It's not an immediately obvious quality that you spot when you spend some time in Africa, but it certainly is an admirable one.

Older people have much more life experience than you. They've learned from mistakes that you've not even made yet.

If a grandparent has something to say around the home everyone will stop what they're doing and give them their full attention.

Our Burkinabé cousins would shudder in horror if they saw the treatment of Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses or Grandpa in The Simpsons.

It's time to lose the stereotype of old people being slow and senile. They may not know what 'a Google' is, but they deserve your time and respect.

4. Ho Ho Health and Safety

Jon go-karting in Burkina Faso

What do you call 100 safety managers in your basement? A whine cellar.

Oh, it's painful how pernickety everything has become with Health and Safety. "The world's gone mad" people say, but not in Burkina Faso.

There's only one go-kart circuit in Ouagadougou and I've had the pleasure of being there.

We arrived to find a sole man asleep in a shed and we awkwardly woke him to see if we could take his machines for a spin. Begrudgingly he swaggered over, filled them with just enough petrol to give us a few laps of karting carnage and then headed back to his booth for a snooze.

And so we were off, bumping, swerving and diving like maniacs, and soon discovered that there wasn't a single steward in sight.

There was a moment when failed manoeuvre sent one of us in a spin and slamming into the tyre wall. He got out of his kart had a good look around and realised he was completely alone. So he dragged his kart back onto the track, rearranged the tyres into something like what they were before and went on his merry way.

Soon we were back in the pits, woke the moody manager, he swaggered across with his petrol can again and we headed on again to our vicious circle.

If we just opened our eyes and ears we can learn from people that are very different to us. This could be in the huts of Burkina Faso, the shelters of Burma, or the lecture theatres of Blighty.

Take the time to reflect on what is going on around you'll be amazed what wonderful wisdom the world has to offer.