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Bridging Cultures: A Tourist Cheat Sheet for East and Southern Africa

Travel isn’t just about seeing new places; travel is about immersing yourself in unique cultures, understanding different perspectives, and fostering connections that transcend borders. At Timeless Africa Safaris, we believe that respect for local customs and traditions is the passport to a truly enriching travel experience.

When one of our team members travelled to the East, she was issued with lots of reading material around the culture; the dos and don’ts with the expectation that visitors should respect the locals’ way of life, especially when it comes to politeness.

Considering how the locals expect visitors to adopt certain aspects of their culture during their visits made us think about some of the things travellers should know about our favourite regions of Africa when they visit.

Tips for Travelling to East Africa

Here are some of our tips for visits to Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda:

Tanzania's Culture Tips:

While English and Swahili are the official languages of Tanzania, local customs can be quite different to Western social norms. Here are some tips to help you come across as a polite and respectful visitor to this beautiful country.


Politeness in Greetings

Always start with a heartfelt “Jambo” (Hello) and “Habari?” (How are you?). “Please” (Tafadhali) and “Thank you” (Asante) are also easy Swahili words to remember that will make an impact in your relationships with the Tanzanian people. Take your time to greet everyone individually and respectfully, prioritizing the elderly.

Handshake Protocol

Use only your right hand for handshakes, as the left is reserved for personal hygiene. Expect long handshakes, which symbolize friendship and may last throughout your conversation.

Dining Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t sniff the food you’re offered – it’s considered rude. Accept and try a bit of every dish shared. Remember to wash your hands before eating and use your right hand when taking food.

Public Displays of Affection (PDA)

Refrain from PDA in public – it’s taboo. While same-gender hand-holding signals friendship, cross-gender contact should be kept private, especially in Zanzibar with its conservative Muslim community.

Respecting Elders

Show utmost respect to elders; greet them with “shikamo” (I hold your feet), and respond to their “marhaba” (I accept your respect). Elders are revered for their wisdom and experience.

Appropriate Dress

Keep your attire modest, covering chest, midriff, and thighs. In Zanzibar, dress conservatively away from the beach, respecting local customs and sensibilities.

Photography Courtesy

Always seek permission before photographing locals. Some may request a small tip for photos, while others may decline due to cultural beliefs.

By embracing these sensitivities, you’ll integrate respectfully into Tanzanian culture and ensure a more enjoyable visit.

Sanctuary Olanana Camp

Kenya's Culture Tips:

Kenya, often described as the ‘Cradle of Humanity’, is a captivating blend of diverse cultures, languages, and traditions. Its stunning landscapes range from the Indian Ocean’s coastal plains to the central highlands and vast wildlife preserves, providing a backdrop to a society that is as vibrant as it is varied. As travellers immerse themselves in this dynamic country, a grasp of Kenyan customs will enrich their journey, bridging the gap between visitor and local in this corner of East Africa.

Kenya shares a border with Tanzania, making it no surprise that they share the same official languages: Swahili and English. We’ve also discovered the vibrant world of Kenyan slang that may come in handy during your trip, especially in the urban centres. Now you’ll be able to navigate local lingo with ease, from the streets of Nairobi to all across Kenya.


Sheng – Kenya’s Urban Twang

Sheng combines English, Kiswahili, and local dialects into a dynamic language, mainly spoken by the youth. Get to know essential Sheng phrases like ‘sasa’ for greetings, ‘poa’ to express coolness, ‘chapaa’ for money, and ‘slay queen’ for a fashionable woman.


Kiswahili Slang – The National Flavour

Even Kenya’s national language, Kiswahili, comes with its unique slang. Master phrases like ‘mchongoano’ for playful teasing, ‘bonge la bwana’ for influential people, and ‘niaje’ as another friendly greeting.


Regional Slang – Diverse Ethnic Twists

Peek into Kenya’s ethnic diversity with Kikuyu, Luo, and Luhya slang, adding more flavors to your language toolkit. Learn terms like ‘kanyaga’ in Kikuyu to hurry someone, ‘odiero’ in Luo for wealth, and ‘ajabu’ in Luhya to describe something amazing.


Why Learn Kenyan Slang?

Grasping Kenyan slang is more than just fitting in; it’s about immersing yourself in the culture and creating genuine connections. You might even unveil a more authentic Kenya with some of these colloquial gems at your disposal.


Easy Local Greetings

Start your conversations with a warm “Jambo” (Hello) and “Habari?” (How are you?). “Please” (Tafadhali) and “Thank you” (Asante) are basic Swahili words that will make a positive impact in your interactions with local Kenyans that you encounter.


Community is Everything

In Kenya, sharing is ingrained in daily life, with families often sharing meals, clothing, and living spaces—privacy and personal time are uncommon concepts.


Speaking English is Okay

Swahili may be the national language, but English is widely spoken, particularly in urban areas, though many indigenous languages abound, especially in rural regions.

Take Your Time

Kenyans often have a relaxed approach to time. Delays and late arrivals are typical, partially due to the traditional ‘Swahili Time’ system, which follows the natural cycle of day and night.


Respect Your Elders

Elders should not be addressed by their first names unless permission is granted—a tradition signaling respect.


Kenyans are Indirect Communicators

Indirect and non-explicit communication techniques are common, though levels of directness correlate with familiarity.


The Extroverts’ Paradise  

Sociability is key in Kenya; close physical interactions are the norm, and disagreeing with others, particularly elders, can be seen as disrespectful.


Right, not Left

When passing or receiving items, use your right hand or both hands, as using the left alone is considered improper.


Request Permission for Photographs

Always ask before taking someone’s photograph, with rural areas being particularly sensitive to unpermitted photography.


Visiting Etiquette

While short, unannounced visits are common, for longer stays, punctuality involves arriving slightly late. Post-meal socializing is expected, and hosts often escort departing guests partway home. Small gifts are appreciated, with a kiondo presenting and returning such offerings. Never return a kiondo empty.

Wilderness Bisate


Rwanda, often referred to as the “Land of a Thousand Hills”, is a vibrant country known for its rich culture and warm-hearted people. Its breathtaking landscapes, ranging from rolling hills to dense rainforests, are matched by the welcoming spirit of its citizens. As visitors explore this enchanting country, it’s crucial to understand the customs that shape the daily lives of Rwandans and contribute to the nation’s unique identity.


People & Language

Kinyarwanda is the nation’s primary language, with English predominantly used in education post-genocide. Rwandans are warm and receptive—don’t hesitate to use local greetings like “murabeho” for goodbye, and “ni meza” as a response to “bite se?” meaning all is fine.

Probing about Ethnicity

After the harrowing 1994 genocide, Rwanda embraces a united identity. Everyone is considered Rwandan, without the declaration of ethnicity on public documents. Respect their privacy and refrain from asking sensitive questions, as many are still mourning the loss of loved ones.

Disturbing the Peace

Rwandans value tranquility and are non-confrontational. Express respect towards elders and maintain politeness in your interactions. The nation prioritizes peace and reconciliation above all.

Ignoring Gorilla Rules

If gorilla trekking, you must follow strict regulations, such as maintaining a 7-meter distance and avoiding all contact, especially if you’re ill. Keep treks to under an hour and no flash photography to ensure their protection.

Eating in Public

Public snacking is not customary in Rwandan culture. While there’s a shift with more Western-style dining options in Kigali, traditionally, meals are shared within the family. Save any snacks for private spaces.

Gifts & Shopping

Consider gifting Akabanga chilli oil. For unique finds, visit the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre or explore Kigali’s vibrant art scene, suitable for transporting unframed canvases home. Don’t miss out on exquisite sisal basketry—ideal for hand luggage souvenirs.

Wilderness Bisate

Wilderness Bisate

Tips for Travelling to Southern Africa

Here are some of our tips for visits to South Africa and Mozambique:

Image credit: SATSA

South Africa's Culture Tips

South Africa is probably the most familiar country to the Western world, thanks to their relatively recent history, which saw apartheid overturned and the new South Africa led by the revered President Nelson Mandela. Visitors to this region shouldn’t be intimidated by the country’s 11 official languages, as business is the major areas and tourist hubs is predominantly done in English. Here are some tips to help you to orient yourself culturally in South Africa.


Know Your History

Understand the impact of Apartheid through Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” Respect the culture and history, particularly when visiting significant sites like Robben Island.


Greet Everyone Warmly

Handshakes with eye contact and a smile are customary in South Africa. Use two hands in rural areas and honorifics like Tata or Mama when addressing elders in Xhosa. However, some rural cultures will break eye contact or even look away during a greeting as a sign of respect.


Tipping Etiquette

Tipping is customary for services rendered. Standard gratuity is 10% at restaurants and salons, while a R10 to R20 tip is sufficient for smaller services.


Understand ‘African Time’

Be prepared for a relaxed concept of time. Learn phrases like “now-now” and “just now” to manage expectations on urgency. (To avoid confusion, remember that neither of these phrases mean “immediately”.)


Enjoy a Braai

Commonly known as a barbeque, participate in this social cooking tradition (a braai) by asking your host what to bring, often a bottle of wine or a small gift as a token of thanks.


Loud and Assertive Communication

Expect straightforward conversation and don’t mistake raised voices for anger; it’s common and culturally accepted.


Respect Your Elders

Use proper titles when speaking to Afrikaans speakers, such as Oom, Tannie, Meneer, Mevrou, or Juffrou depending on the context. Respect towards elders is deeply ingrained.


Learn Your Slang

Familiarize yourself with local slang. Understand “Shame!” as empathy, “Is it?” as a statement, and “Lekker” for something good. Also remember, a “robot” is a traffic light.

Soweto Towers in SOuth Africa

Soweto Towers in South Africa

Woman's walking along a beach at Azura Benguerra Island, Mozambique

Mozambique's Culture Tips:

Mozambique, with its stunning coastline and vibrant cities, offers a unique blend of African, Arab, and Portuguese influences. The Mozambican people are known for their warm hospitality and rich cultural traditions. As a visitor, understanding the country’s customs will not only enhance your travel experience but also help you connect more deeply with its diverse and spirited people.


Portuguese is the official language, with English frequently spoken in tourist areas and a mix of indigenous languages throughout the country. Learning basic Portuguese phrases can be helpful:

  • Bon Dia (Good morning)
  • Boa Tarde (Good afternoon)
  • Obrigado (Thank you – male)
  • Obrigada (Thank you – female)
  • Pao (bread)
  • Fasce favor (Please)
  • Nao, no caro pas (No, I don’t want it, thank you)

Tipping Customs

Tipping isn’t obligatory, but it’s appreciated. In restaurants, 10% is standard, while US$1 to US$2 per day is suitable for hotel staff. For tour guides, consider US$4 to US$5 per day. Given the high poverty rate, tips are particularly valuable.


Negotiating prices is expected at markets. When bargaining, be considerate, especially for handmade items that provide a livelihood for vendors.

Etiquette in Mozambique

Respect Local Traditions: Show your appreciation for Mozambican customs by adopting a polite and friendly demeanor, much like the locals.

Dress Appropriately: Women should take care to cover their thighs in accordance with local customs. Always dress conservatively.

Photography Restrictions: Some buildings fall under government restrictions for photography. When in doubt, ask a local before snapping a photo.

Tipping Etiquette: Tipping isn’t widespread outside tourist hotspots. In tourist areas, consider a 5% tip based on service quality.

Personal Space & Touching

  • Maintain an arm’s length of space in conversations.
  • Same-gender interactions may involve closer distances.
  • Casual touching, like handholding between men, signifies platonic friendship.
  • In queues, physical proximity is common and unremarkable.
  • Opposite-sex conversations typically include no touching besides handshakes.
  • Leg touching is reserved for those with a familiar relationship.
  • Women should avoid touching men unless indicating romantic interest.


Communal Culture

Mozambicans prize togetherness and find joy in shared experiences. Solitude, even for activities like reading, is often eschewed in favour of community presence.


Professional settings expect timeliness, but socially, flexibility is the norm. Expectation adheres more to the event’s spirit rather than the clock.

Public Transport

Schedules for buses and trains lean towards the unpredictable, with buses departing when fully loaded, and trains arriving without strict adherence to timetables.

Social Etiquette

In Mozambican society, social courtesies such as staying for tea take precedence over other engagements, and leaving prematurely is seen as discourteous.

Men Greeting Men

Typically, a firm right-handed handshake is the norm. It’s not unusual to see handshakes with both hands, or the left hand grasping the right forearm for added warmth. Sustained handshakes or friendly shoulder hugs signify a strong bond. Walking hand-in-hand is a common display of platonic friendship.

Women Greeting Women

Casual encounters might involve a handshake, a verbal hello, or a simple nod. Close friends and family typically share kisses on each cheek as a sign of intimacy.

Meetings between Men and Women

Handshakes are standard greetings, with nods more prevalent in rural areas and handshakes in cities. Among close friends and relatives, cheek kisses are a customary greeting.

Remember, greeting individuals openly is a sign of respect and recognition, regardless of whether you’re acquainted.


Eye Contact

Same-gender and social status pairs often maintain direct eye contact.

Looking down is a respect sign when addressing elders or, at times, women with men.


Communication Style

Mozambicans typically use subtle, non-confrontational communication, aiming to avoid offense. But when it comes to remarks about one’s appearance or attire, commentary is often straightforward and candid. (Be prepared to have those extra 5 pounds pointed out!) Commitments regarding time, attendance, and task completion tend to be optimistic rather than accurate, valuing politeness over precision.

Residents of Mozambique via Azura Benguerra Island, Mozambique

While all of these exquisite countries are rich in culture and natural beauty, they also face challenges such as poverty and complex political climates. As tourists, our awareness, respect, and positive contributions can make a difference.

Share this cultural cheat sheet and help us promote responsible and respectful tourism. Together, we can make travel a force for good.

In this article
  • Introduction
  • Cultural Tips for Travelling to East Africa
  • Tanzania's Culture Tips
  • Kenya's Culture Tips
  • Rwanda's Culture Tips
  • Cultural Tips for Travelling to Southern Africa
  • South Africa's Culture Tips
  • Mozambique's Culture Tips

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