Cultural Intelligence and the Afro-centric Worldview

davidlivermore | April 14th, 2015 10 Comments



Guest Post by Buhle Dlamini

Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world right now. Forget the news headline like “Ebola in West Africa”, and “Violent Militants in Africa”. The reality is that these challenges pale in comparison to the amazing opportunities this vast continent has to offer.

Corporations looking for growth in emerging markets are opening offices in multiple sites across the continent. This is where cultural intelligence comes in, and in particular some understanding of the Afro-centric worldview is essential in order to succeed.

Being a native of South Africa and a Zulu raised in rural Zululand, I have an inside scoop on the different ways that Africans see the world. While not every African holds this Afro-centric worldview, most will identify with it. And we take this view for granted until we’re exposed to something different. In my cross-cultural marriage to my wife Stacey, a Canadian from Nova Scotia, I started to note the ways we held different worldviews.

Take for example the differing views when it comes to how time, family and ownership are perceived from an Afro-centric perspective.

The majority of people with an Afro-centric worldview see time very differently from Westerners. Africans operate from the “Event-time” orientation, meaning the emphasis is put on the event and the person rather than an artificially imposed time. Time is negotiable. This is why events in an Afro-centric setting tend to be much longer than in other cultures.  It is considered disrespectful to allow time to get in the way of interacting with each other. If you run into a friend or family member on the way to work, surely you will take the time to greet them and ask about their family.

  • When working in an Afro-centric context allow more time for the unexpected rather than simply scheduling everything into a rigid timeframe. In a “clock-time” oriented culture the watch dictates when things start and end, whereas in an Afro-centric setting, people dictate the length of an event.

In some cultures, family is narrowly restricted to focus on the nuclear family and a limited extended family. The Afro-centric definition of family is far more reaching and even extends to anyone who shares a similar surname. This can be confusing, especially because people may refer to extended family members as uncles and aunts when there actually is no direct connection in the way that other cultures would understand those terms.

  • ‘Ubuntu’ is a collective and shared identity, or togetherness, which links everyone’s humanity to the connectivity they maintain with other humans. As a result weddings, funerals and other important events tend to be a much bigger affair and open to a much bigger group. Turning down an invitation to a co-worker’s family event may be a much greater offense to an African than it would to co-workers from many other cultures.

Ownership in an Afro-centric worldview is very collective. When I first bought a car and drove it back to my village, everyone responded, “We have a car! We have a car!” In the majority of Afro-centric contexts there is a community ownership of everyone’s resources. This often translates into ‘what is yours is ours’.

There is an unspoken expectation that when you succeed in one-way or another you have to carry the rest with you. If one owns a car and others don’t, one is expected to use it for the benefit of the rest.

  • Failure to comply with these expectations quickly earns one the reputation that they are selfish and ‘un-African’. Consider how HR policies may need to be adapted when expanding into Africa. Understand the expectations an employees’ community will have on them.

These tend to be extremes of the Afro-centric worldview and many younger leaders are beginning to adopt more Western values. But before assuming a young leader lacks confidence because he won’t look you in the eye or a staff member is irresponsible because she shows up late for a meeting, stop to consider what competing values they may be facing. Don’t too quickly judge their motives and find ways to discover more.  Most of us Africans are quite welcoming and eager to share our culture but when rebuffed in our attempts we may hold back. The key is to be open-minded and use cultural intelligence to be surprised by the rich things you can learn.

Africa awaits! Wozani Nonke—Come All.

Buhle Dlamini is based in Canada and South Africa and is available to offer speaking, training, and consulting to help organizations develop a culturally intelligent approach for working in Africa. He’s a CQ Certified Facilitator and is founder and chair of Young & Able, a consultancy offering CQ training in Africa.

10 Responses to Cultural Intelligence and the Afro-centric Worldview

  1. Great post! Thank you for sharing!

  2. VERY interested in hearing Buhle Dlamini’s insights.

  3. Thank you so very much for your African insights. I find them all to be true to my experiences there, though of course, there are many variations throughout the huge continent. I taught intercultural communication to a very mixed group in Kenya, and I think even they were surprised how different they could be. That said, your three examples ring true, and I smiled when I saw the word, ubuntu. Difficult for individualists to wrap their mind around it, but your example of the car is perfect! Best wishes with your trainings in S. Africa!

  4. Even here in North America we need to be reminded of such differences. A recent immigrant group from Nepal has people who referred to me as a “god” perhaps because I looked after their welfare and helped them learn a new culture. I knew they didn’t mean what a “Westerner” might mean by the term…..and it does seem that they share very much the community concept of sharing resources….and kinship terms because “brother/sister” reminds me of Africans I have known who broadly used the term with my children and their children. There is so much to learn. Thank you for your post

  5. Thank you for articulating these ideas, all of which are familiar to me, although I grew up in middle America. The “event-centered” sense of time also lives in rural family farm communities, North American Native/First Nations tribal groups, island-based cultures and many Asian cultures. The diffuse family boundaries and ownership differences are also present in many of these groups, especially in non-urban settings, and are so strong in Hawaii they persist even in the most urbanized parts of Hawaii.

  6. Africa being such an enormous and varied continent, I wonder if it is possible or correct to speak of one “Afro-centric world view.”

  7. So many synergies with our Aboriginal Culture here in Australia. Extended family groups with few blood ties reminds me daily that “it takes a village to raise a child”. It also takes a village to farewell a “family” member. Collective cultures can teach us individuals so much about life and the art of living!

  8. Well done for packaging the notion of africanism in a page! These are certainly the ‘must knows’ for companies intending to be successful in doing business in our beautiful & diverse continent. Although very welcoming & warm in nature, we remain who we are. Our beliefs & ways of being are embedded in our DNA!

  9. Love this post! I’ve heard about the first two before but the last one on ownership is new insight to me. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Very good article, captures the essence of some simple but critical differences. Despite the diversity of Africa, it has generic basics that would allow basic Afro centricity in the same way we would say there are billions of customers, but we can speak of customer centricity. I have had the privilege of working in and with people from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cote de voire, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Gabon and in a recent discussion about Xenophobia we were amazed at how basic things we were taught when growing up are exactly the same in these countries. Possible explanations lie in history – the great migration – and these similarities are prevalent in business.
    In a recent article I also proposed that this cultural intelligence is critical in politics even in the simple definition of democracy. It’s probably one of the reasons why western democracy struggles to fit into the African context and only the westernised Africans seem to ‘get it’. My conclusion was could it be that we need to redefine African democracy based on both cultural and contextual intelligence.