I guess you can’t really put any culture in a box. Especially in a capital city where not only African and Arab cultures co-exist, but also countless different tribes are represented as well. From my humble observations though there seems to be some interesting dichotomies here.
First of all, if you are following the news about this country at all you know that there is a lot of interesting stuff going down at present all over the country. There are some parts of the country right now that are dangerous to be in and around and there is fighting going on all over. The country split just over a month ago and there are a number of issues yet to be resolved in that split. However, where I am living is one of, if not the, safest capital cities in Africa. There is some violence and petty theft and things, but comparatively this is a very safe place to live. I’ve never felt unsafe here. Plus the local people are generally incredibly friendly, helpful, and are big on community. Most of my neighbors I still don’t know all that well but if anything were to happen I have no doubt that my roommate and I would be well looked after. Every evening when the sun starts to go down the men on our street pull out chairs and sit and chat and watch out over our street. I think the motivation is more social than neighborhood watch, but you still feel like there is someone looking out for you. Though, even when I am on the bus or walking home at night by myself I never feel unsafe.
Another sort of cultural dichotomy I don’t really understand is their sense of humor and saving face. The sense of humor is self-deprecating in a way. If someone falls on the street, or says something silly everyone is quick to laugh. Not in a mocking way, that’s just what you do. Like when my bus got into a fender bender the other day the first thing everyone on the bus did was laugh. But, on the other side, like many Arab cultures, they are very big on saving face. Especially with men, if they feel like they have been insulted or embarrassed in front of other people it will usually lead to a confrontation. Saving face so much so that people won’t answer you “I don’t know.” They will answer what they think you want to hear or make something up. So I’ve learned if I’m trying to find how to get somewhere or looking for something in the market I will usually ask a couple of people and try to get a consensus first. I’ve also gotten pretty good at reading whether the person knows what they’re talking about or are just saying something.
One thing that I really don’t understand is that this is not a line culture. Not a line culture?! That is a cultural thing?? Apparently. When I go to the shop I won’t necessarily be served in the order of how I got there. Sometimes the shop owner will ask me what I want ahead of other people that got there first. Sometimes, like at the ice cream place, I won’t get anything unless I squeeze myself into the front and act in a way that Americans would consider pushy and rude. More than once I have been at one of the bigger stores with actual registers and things and I’m halfway through being rung up and the cashier stops, and rings up another customer, then once they are finished will come back to me. There is generally no sense of, what is so ingrained in us, that whoever was there first should go first etc. Same is true for the bus at busy times. If you don’t push your way on, you won’t get on. It is so different!
Also, I would just like to quickly address the local sweet tooth. Oh my goodness. These folks love sugar. Yesterday one of my neighbors gave my roommate and I a lesson in juice making the local way. She made a standard blender full of juice. About 6 oranges went in, at least 3.5 CUPS of sugar, filled it to the top with water, and blended. Oh my gracious. So darn sweet. She had us drink 2 glasses each. It made me feel sick. (Because I usually eat little to no sugar in my day to day life when I can avoid it.) Most of the milk you can buy is sweetened. The sodas here have more sugar in them than American ones. Some of the ladies put soda in a baby bottle for their kids for crying out loud. It’s nuts. And yes, yes indeedy, diabetes is a problem here. I will say though that their sweet tooth matches their hospitality. I couldn’t ask for a more welcome, friendly place to live.