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The West of Africa is very different for us, but it shows how beautiful it is for us to learn about the cultural differences.

21 Things That Gave Us Culture Shock in The West of Africa

  • Post last modified:October 25, 2023
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  • Post category:Africa

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Have you ever experienced culture shock? Well, travel to the West of Africa, and we're sure your mind will be blown by some of these! After 10 days traveling through Senegal and Gambia, we really learned a lot about the culture and lifestyle of the locals.

So here is the good, the bad, and the ugly. We're here to show you 21 different things that gave us culture shock in the West of Africa.

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1. Bribing is Next Level

This is the number one thing that gave us culture shock in the West of Africa.

When we were in Mexico, it was very common that cops would look for bribes to let you on your way, and also in Morocco (just a little north of Senegal). But Western Africa takes it to another level. It doesn't apply to just police officers pulling you over, but of all "members of authority".

It starts from going through customs, to police checkpoints with military, to crossing the land borders. Officers expect that you will bring them something- whether it is money, coffee, or food. This is a rather corrupt system, but seems to keep the peace and get things rolling.

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We were pretty short on cash, and also don't believe it is ethical to have to give money for no reason. So what we did instead was we carried snacks such as cookies with us at all times. We offered them to the soldiers, police, and border patrol. They would often laugh and be looking for more, but for us it worked out pretty well.

2. The Visa System Isn't Very Clear

This is something we really struggled with, as it's not as easy as checking an official website. The list of who does and who doesn't need a visa for Senegal, Gambia, and (most likely) some other countries in the West of Africa, is pretty grey,

Here's an example: The official site of Dakar airport states that Argentinians do not need a visa. When we arrived into the airport, Fede was able to go in without a visa. However, when we tried re-entering the country through the land border with Gambia, we had issues.

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The list they had was a crumbled and faded list, which stated that Argentinian citizens need a visa. Despite us arguing and showing the official website, they were pretty difficult to deal with, and would not allow us to enter again without a visa.

Our suggestion? Head to the local embassy and get all the proper info, with proof that you had gone there.

3. Toilet Paper Is Rare

Getting off the plane, the first moment of culture shock in Western Africa began right at the airport. The moment I stepped into the bathroom I noticed that there wasn't any toilet paper. When I asked the woman that was working in the bathroom, she laughed and pointed to a hose.

It was that moment that I realized this trip was going to be very different from many of our others. Apparently in many places in the West of Africa it is custom to wash off using a small hose, rather than wiping yourself off with toilet paper.

toilets in Senegal

Toilets in Senegal have a hose on the side, and are often without toilet paper.

Our tip for this is to make sure you carry a pack of tissues with you at all times, as you never know which places will or will not have toilet paper.

4. It's Common to Eat on the Floor

This was one of the things that gave us the most culture shock when visiting the West of Africa, and Senegal in particular.

It's a common custom to all sit on the floor on a blanket or carpet, all in a circle around the meal. Many times the food is served in one large pan, and everyone will eat directly from there. In addition, it is also a common custom to eat only with the right hand. Sorry lefties!

Food in Senegal

It's common to gather around on the floor to share a meal in Senegal.

5. Credit Cards are Almost Never a Thing

If it's something we struggled with in the West of Africa, it was this. Finding a place that takes credit card feels like winning the lottery in this area of the world.

The places that you would assume take credit card, even didn't. Supermarkets, hotels, and even gas stations were 99 times out of 100 cash only. The countries in the West of Africa simply aren't set up to have these systems, so you can only find very select few spots in the capitals if you're lucky.

gases in the west of Africa

Even gas stations don't accept credit cards.

6. ATMs are Super Hard to Find

When we first got to Senegal we didn't want to take a lot of money out, because we don't like to have large amounts of cash carried around with us. Boy, was this a mistake.

We ran out of cash, and needed to take money out. Sounds easy right? Wrong. We drove for hours without finding an ATM, and one day had to make a 2 1/2 hour detour to make it to a town to find an ATM, where there wasn't even cash inside. We had to go to 4 banks before we actually found one that would accept our card, and had the funds to dispense.

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Our tip? Take out a large chunk of cash, and when you're starting to run a little low and see an ATM, be proactive. This will. save you a lot of stress and frustration later on.

7. It's Common for Random People to Ask for Money

Traveling to the West of Africa as a white couple, we clearly stood out a bit from the crowd. It was very common for people to walk up to us and ask for money. The reason is, because they have an assumption that you are very wealthy. For us, it is quite the contrary. However, we were definitely a stereotype for them. 

Now we aren't talking about begging. We are actually talking about random people walking up and simply asking for money. It's not in an aggressive way nor a pitiful way, but super casual. This for us gave us even more culture shock, but also made us feel very safe, as they wouldn't insist or make you feel bad.

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8. The People are Extremely Generous

Now we know what you're thinking- but how are the generous when they are asking for money? Well, the answer is this: The people of Senegal have a very beautiful mentality of giving. They seek to aid those in need, and are always trying to help. 

When we were in the sacred city of Touba we had run out of cash, and there were no banks anywhere to be found. The locals came together and fed us. They gave us their own clothes to enter the mosque with, and then proceeded to give us a personal tour. At the end of everything they expected nothing, and urged us to keep the clothes as a souvenir.

what to wear when you travel in Senegal

A kind family gifted us with their own clothes so that we could visit the mosque in Touba.

We were so surprised by the warm and welcoming culture. In both Gambia and Senegal we met the most generous and friendly people, and gave us a great impression about the West of Africa.

9. Everyone Wants Your Phone Number

This may have just been the strangest thing for us along our travels. This particularly happened in Gambia, as the primary language is English.

First of all, we'd like to mention that in Gambia there were check points every few kilometers. We started to notice after a couple of times that every single time we'd stop it would end the exact same way- them asking us for our phone number.

By the end of the trip we had given our phone number to probably 20-30 people, all of whom followed up messaging quite frequently. They'd send photos, call, and message on a daily basis. For us, this was a huge culture shock. It definitely seems strange, but it's all with good intentions.

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10. Getting Around is Not as Cheap as You'd Think

While a lot of things in the West of Africa are very cheap, getting around really isn't.

The public transportation inside the city of Dakar or other cities is very affordable. However, once you want to travel longer distances, it's really not as easy. We were recommended to hire a driver, which of course was extremely costly.

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Because of that, we decided to rent a car. We thought that this would be a cheaper option, but ended up costing us $1,000 for 10 days! That's much more expensive than many places throughout the world. We do however think that it was worth renting a car, as there aren't many options for getting around easily. It's definitely cheapest if you book in advance, and this is a site that we tend to use quite often:

Want to know more about what it's like to rent a car in Senegal? We have a full guide that you can check out below!

11. There is a big French Influence

We had no idea that Senegal had such a big French influence! One of the primary languages was French, and there were a lot of influences in the cuisine. We loved the infusion of French influence mixed with the local African ones.

french bakery in Dakar Senegal

You can find French style bakeries in the capital of Dakar.

12. There's Barely Any Street Food

We were road tripping around Senegal and Gambia, and would drive for hours without finding food. We'd finally find a small town and be craving a quick snack, just to find that it wasn't that easy. 

While there are always tons of people selling on the streets, it was usually just fruits and vegetables, not anything cooked and ready to go. We found this to be rather surprising for us, as most areas of the world street food is very common to be found,

street food in the west of Africa

It's common to see fruits and vegetables sold on the streets, but not prepared foods.

This is definitely something to keep in mind, as you'll have to spend more time going to restaurants than making quick pitstops for food.

13. They're Extremely Religious

Did you know that in Senegal and in many Western African countries they are muslim? There are a lot of places that are very religious, and they even have a sacred city where the religious leader overrules the government's laws!

Mosques separate men from women, and shoes must be taken off before entering, There is a very strict dress code, and women must be covered from top to bottom- even the hair!

women dressing in mosques in the west of africa

In mosques women must cover everything, including their hair.

14. They have Beautiful Beaches

When one thinks of Africa, they imagine wild animals running through empty fields, and camels walking through vast deserts. But the truth is, that the West of Africa is home to some pretty beautiful beaches.

Senegal has great beaches along the south, as well as in the surrounding areas of Dakar. Not only that, but there are quite a few islands worth checking out!

St Louis Senegal, west of Africa

Hugging the Atlantic Ocean, the West of Africa has some really beautiful beaches.

15. Wifi is Rare

Wifi is a true luxury in the West of Africa. Even when we would find a nice cafe or hotel, there were so many times that Wifi wasn't available. 

We suggest that if you're a digital nomad like us, or need to connect for any reason, that you invest in a local SIM card. This will be super helpful, and keep you from wasting time thinking you're going to find Wifi throughout your travels.

16. There are More Goats than Anything

We've never seen more goats in our life. Every small town that we passed through there were more goats than people! There were so many times we had to stop short to let a full heard of goats go in front of our car. It was definitely something that surprised us in the West of Africa, and haven't really seen anywhere else.

goats in the west of Africa

In some places in the West of Africa we saw more goats than people.

17. They Don't Have Pets

While there are tons of animals roaming the streets, you'll never see someone actually possessing an animal as their own. This was something we actually became aware of in Jordan, and then noticed it to be the same in Morocco and Senegal. Animals are kept in the wild, and the only ones that are possessed are for purposes of transportation, such as horses and donkeys.

horses in west of africa

It's not usual to see pets in the west of Africa. However, it's very common to see horses and donkeys used as transportation.

18. People Hang Off the Back of Buses

In most places, if a bus is full, then you'll have to squeeze inside, or get the next one. But in Senegal, it is common to see not just one or two, but up to 10 people dangling off the back of a public bus. Insane right? The only other place we've ever seen this was El Salvador.

public buses in west of Africa

It's common to find locals hanging off the back of moving buses.

19. It's Much Safer Than You'd Think

While they may not be the safest with their public transportation, we can say that Western Africa was a place that was surprisingly safe.

There are so many places around the world that have terrible reputations for safety, like Mexico, South America, and countries throughout Africa. And while there is certainly crime, it's not like you are going to randomly get killed for stepping foot into these countries.

Unfortunately, Africa as a continent tends to be assumed as extremely dangerous. We certainly can not speak for many other countries, but we can confirm that Senegal and Gambia are extremely safe, and that the people are super friendly.

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20. Women Carry Everything on Their Heads (Like, Everything)

It is truly impressive the skill that women in the West of Africa (and probably many other areas of Africa) have developed. They have the ability to carry literally anything on their heads!

We even saw a women carrying a giant suitcase on her head in Gambia, which seriously blew our minds. We tried ourselves to balance something small, and let us tell you it's incredibly impressive. Many of the women even do so while having their children strapped to their backs!

women in the west of Africa

Women in the West of Africa have a serious talent of carrying things on their heads.

While we would assume this would in turn make things harder, we actually learned that it can help balance out the body. Interesting right?

21. There's a Bigger Reason Behind the Begging

This is something we're truly sad to share, because it's a lose lose situation when it comes to giving your money to kids on the streets. Now this may not be the case for every single place in Western Africa, but it was certainly the case in a few spots in Senegal.

Children in Senegal

A group of young boys and man we met in St Louis Senegal told us the story about why the children beg for money.

There is a system in certain areas of the country where young boys are sent away to a different city to join what is known as the "Talibe". Each day they must collect a certain amount of money to bring back to their "master". If not they will be beaten. This makes you immediately want to give them money to avoid being beaten right? Well sadly there's a bigger picture here.

The money that the young boys to collect for the master is actually used to purchase young girls. So really it's a vicious cycle that is something deeper to consider.

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The West of Africa is an intriguing place. It felt like a completely different world to us. Some of it is so raw and pure, and really has such beauty. Some other things made our jaws drop and truly worried us. While others made us just look at each other and laugh.

It just goes to show you that there is so much uniqueness across the globe. Maybe they would come to our countries and be so incredibly blown away- both in a good and bad way, Or maybe this just goes to show that despite how different we all are, we really are also so similar. 

mosques in Senegal

The West of Africa is very different for us, but it shows how beautiful it is for us to learn about the cultural differences.

Regardless, we hope that you have learned something new, and that despite the differences, you will truly love and cherish a trip to somewhere as unique as the West of Africa.

Want to learn more about the countries in Africa that we traveled to? We have a few other guides that will help you know what to expect, and some of the most epic places to check out.

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