During our years (1973 to 1991) in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, my wife Donna and I found the people to whom God sent us the most friendly, hospitable, and generous people we had ever met in our entire lives. However, because of our being often asked for money and other things by Africans, a practice which we found extremely annoying, it would have been very helpful if we had had this book to read before leaving for our first term and if we had read It again a few years later after we had some actual practical experience in Africa.
Economic and Social Systems
African Friends and Money Matters is by far the best discussion I’ve ever read on how economic and social systems work on the individual level. Its author, David Maranz, Ph.D, who has served with SIL (Wycliffe) in several countries in Africa since 1975, has an abundance of firsthand experience on how African friendships and money matters actually work on the individual level.
Most of Maranz’s experience has been in Senegal and other West African nations. However, he has gleaned information from many other people, both Africans and expatriates, in Central and East Africa. In my opinion, the customs and practices he writes about are almost universal throughout sub-Saharan African, except that some of his examples seem a little more relevant for those serving in urban areas, rather than rural, and for those serving among Muslims, rather than non-Muslims.
The Introduction (pages 1-12) serves as an excellent foundation for understanding the rest of the book. The author’s main point is that African and Western economic systems are completely different. In the West the main goal of the economic system is to accumulate capital and wealth, but in most societies in Africa it is to distribute the economic resources so that all persons have their minimum needs met or at least survive. He believes that both systems work well in their own cultural context.
Purpose of the book
However, he writes, “Basically, the two systems mix about as well as oil and vinegar; the mix makes a good salad dressing only, with great and constant effort. But this does not mean that African people and Westerners do not mix. I believe they do mix quite easily, and that they frequently develop friendships with each other. But rather serious misunderstandings commonly occur because the economic habits, behaviors, and traditions each brings to the relationship are so different at many points. These are major handicaps for both Westerners and their African friends to overcome. The major purpose of this book is to help each party understand the other in these complex cross-cultural interactions. A better understanding of the principles that each participant follows should enable each to build a better relationship with the other.”
The majority of the book contains ninety observations related to personal finances and friendship in Africa. In many of these observations the author contrasts the values and practices of Africans with those of Americans and Europeans. If you are planning on ministering in Africa, even on a short-term trip, I highly recommend you read this book. It is written with much wisdom and sensitivity. Below are just a few of these principles to give you an idea of how valuable it could be to you. (Warning: to truly understand what I have extracted it is necessary to read these sentences in their context within the book. Just reading them out of context could even cause you to have a negative attitude towards Africans. That is not at all the spirit in which this insightful book was written.)
“Being involved financially and materially with friends and relatives is a very important element of social interaction.” … “Westerners distrust friendships that regularly include financial and material exchanges.”
“Africans readily share space and things but are possessive of knowledge.” … “Westerners readily share their knowledge but are possessive of things and space.”
“The person requesting a thing or money from a friend or relative has a dominant role in determining whether his or her need is greater than that of the potential donor, and consequently, of whether or not the donor should donate.” … To a Westerner if a person has a virtual right to take someone else’s goods, or to unilaterally change the designation of spending of entrusted funds, it amounts to sanctioned theft.”
“Precision is to be avoided in accounting as it shows the lack of a generous spirit.” … To the Westerner “precision is essential in accounting; laxity, leniency, permissiveness or flexibility will in the long run be perilous for individuals and for society at large.”
“When someone goes on an errand to make a purchase for another, if he is given a bill or coin that is greater than the amount of the purchase, the person running the errand will normally keep the change unless asked for it.” … “A Westerner expects that if a person makes a purchase for him, any change is considered belonging to the Westerner, and is automatically required to be returned unless he expressly says, ‘keep the change.’”
“A network of friends is a network of resources.” … “Disinterested friendship is the ideal in the West. Any friendships that include material considerations are suspect.”
“Africans are more hospitable than charitable.” … “Westerners are more charitable than hospitable.”
“Compliments are frequently given indirectly in the form of requests for gifts or loans and are often formulated as questions.” … “Westerners are not accustomed to compliments being formulated as requests, and easily misinterpret them and take offense.”
“Africans find security in ambiguous arrangements, plans, and speech.” … “Westerners find security in clearly defined relationships, arrangements, plans, and speech.”
(For Africans) “Solidarity means interdependence rather than independence. It also means living in community rather than living in social or spatial isolation.” As a result, “a great many economic needs in Africa are met or alleviated through the solidarity and generosity of relatives and friends.” … “Westerners greatly admire the high degree of solidarity and generosity they see between African friends and relatives, but they find it difficult to become full economic participants in the society.”
“An unjust settlement of a dispute is better than an offended complainant.”… “For the Westerner settlements need to be based on a fair interpretation of the terms of the relevant law or contract. Personal feeling or other subjective considerations should be subordinated to objective facts.”
“People (Africans) typically receive satisfaction from being asked for financial help, whether or not they are disposed to provide it.” … “Westerners are largely annoyed by requests for help and find it hard even to imagine receiving enjoyment from being solicited, or from taking the role of a patron.”
“The reputation of (African) people of means is enhanced through the frequent visits of their clients.” … “Foreigners are typically frustrated and inconvenienced by frequent, uninvited visits by African friends and acquaintances.”
“Success in life is attained through personal relationships, through connections with people in positions of power and authority, and through spiritual means.” … (For the Westerner) “Success in life is attained through ability, hard work, education, and delayed gratification, within the framework of a just society.”
“When an African has a need for money or some good, the normal and acceptable way to get it is to ask for it from a relative, friend, or acquaintance who has it.” … (In the West) “Asking someone for money or some material object is impolite or an imposition. People are expected to take care of their own personal needs.”
“The repayment of loans is a subjective matter involving the weighing of economic, social, and time factors.” … “For the Westerner the repayment of a loan is due objectively on the terms agreed upon when the loan was made.”
“The collection of debts is primarily the responsibility of creditors, not of borrowers to volunteer payments.” … In the West “the repayment of loans and the payment of rents are responsibilities of borrowers and renters.”
“The risk of a loan not being paid back is largely assumed by the lender.” … “For the Westerner the borrower assumes the risk of repaying a loan.”
(For the African) “The response ‘No’ to a request for money, a loan, or a material object, is understood as an insult, indifference to need, a lack of respect, or a sign of rejection of the petitioner.” … (For the Westerner) “The simple response ‘No’ is meant to tell the petitioner in the most economic terms possible that the request is denied for whatever reason.”
“When a problem is encountered in trying to complete or carry through with a transaction involving finances or other matters, the problem will seldom be clearly admitted at the outset, but will typically only be revealed over a period of time.” … “Westerners find it very frustrating to have Africans appear to be unclear, indirect, and uninformative.”
“When a customer is told that an ordered object or service will be ready on a specified time or date, it is unlikely to be ready at that time.” … “The Western customer expects to be given a reasonable date, and that barring extenuating or unusual circumstances, the thing or service will be ready as specified. Consequently, when it is not, the Westerner considers the service provider to be unreliable or even untrustworthy.”