As an Australian, there is one cultural mistake that even after nearly 18 years on the African continent I still occasionally make. To give some context, if you are looking for information from a stranger in Australia people are accustomed to the questions being delivered in a concise manner. For example; if you want directions to the nearest ATM machine, you don’t waste time, a simple ‘Hey mate, could you direct me to the nearest ATM’ is common. The person will then either direct you in the right direction, or tell you they don’t know. Conversation over, life goes on.
In West Africa though, if you had done this you would have committed a cultural faux pas. It’s incredibly uncommon to walk up to a stranger and just blurt out a question. Greetings are a very important part of daily life. As a tourist you will not be expected to delve into the intricacies of a customary greeting. Especially considering each language and dialect has its own special set of greetings that no short-term visitor can expect to know. But commonly these greetings revolve around asking how are you?, your family?, the house? etc. Once the greetings are completed then the questions can begin.
To get it right, when you want to ask someone a question or just to simply have a chat, a simple, ‘hi’, ‘how are you’, ‘I have a question’ will go a long way.