Whether you are conducting business, are involved in politics, or just visiting a country, it will always work to your advantage to adjust — to the level of your comfort — to the local communication style, be it verbally or African Country Guides will be released one at a time, and we are looking at the first three guides, covering Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.
There is a significant amount of overlap between the guides, particularly in the introductions, indicating that these are truly meant to serve as individual guides to the countries they cover.
BASIC STRUCTURE OF EACH GUIDE
– Buying & selling
3. Message / Content
– Colors, symbols
– Tone (only in the Ghana guide)
4. Adapting Services
– Customer service
5. Other Cultural Considerations
Each guide includes a brief history lesson on the country it covers. The Benin guide includes a quick investment pitch: “Benin, a country which meets all the economic, political, demographic, and infrastructural requirements for investment, is a goldmine for any ambitious company.”
In the Burkina Faso report, I was struck by this engaging history lesson: “The country gained its independence in 1960 as Upper Volta. In the 1980’s the country was renamed Burkina Faso, with the aim of strengthening national cohesion using local languages: Mooré and Dioula. Therefore, “Burkina” means “integrity, honour” in Mooré and “Faso” means “country, territory, land or homeland.”
With this impressive diversity of languages, it’s sensible to establish one “official” language for public documentation, the press, literature, and administration. In Benin and Burkina Faso this is French because of the countries’ colonial past. However, only 14.8% of the Beninese population aged 15-24 are able to read and write the national language, compared to 23.9-61.2% in Burkina Faso, depending on the region. In Ghana the official language is English, due to its colonial history with Britain. Meanwhile, publications often use major Ghanaian local languages, like the Twi dialects of Asante and Akwapim, to appeal to their readers.
© Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
The importance of traditional markets, and their interregional character, becomes apparent in the Benin guide: “in Dantokpa market, the largest open-air market in West Africa, it would be preferable to approach a market woman in Fon rather than in French.”
However, in some places such as the Missebo market in Cotonou, knowledge of English or “pidgin” can be useful because of the presence of many Nigerians.” As an example, the brand name DAFANI is explained, “Its name is similar to “Dan Fani” which means “woven fabric in Dioula, and ‘Faso Dan Fani,’ a very popular woven fabric in Burkina.”
“In Burkina Faso, a light cultural touch to your product can make a big difference.”
“In markets and small shops, people normally prefer to interact in their local languages. It is also very common to find people switching between English and the dominant local language.”
Strict ethical codes exist for content delivery in all three countries, be it text, image, video, or audio. In Benin, “Messages must be in conformity with the law and comply with standards of decency, fairness, and respect for human beings. They must not harm children, women, minors, or persons with disability and must not incite violence or glorify crime or hatred.” In Burkina Faso, “broadcasting regulatory code states that all messages shall comply with the requirements of truthfulness, decency, and respect human dignity. No advertisement shall discriminate on the basis of skin color, gender, caste, nationality, religion, or social class.” Notably in contrast, Ghana’s 2014 broadcasting bill requires that “broadcasting promote national identity, culture, and languages of the country.” The first thing on my mind was a concern for media freedom, a feeling this restricts unaffiliated messaging and could even amount to censorship. In Benin the regulations more gently require messaging “not undermine the credibility of the state and public order.”
All three reports encourage the use of national or local actors, musicians or otherwise known public figures. Localizing into regional languages and keeping the message short due to a high percentage of illiteracy are further valuable tips to keep in mind when including a written message. Notably, the Burkina Faso broadcasting code states “pictures featuring women must preserve their respect and dignity,” which brings up one simple question: Why? On the other hand, as a woman living in the US, continually exposed to idealized and highly sexualized portrayals of women, I happily imagine the confidence it must instill in women and respect in men toward women.
The Benin and Ghana guides deliberately point out the importance of radio as a popular communication tool. “More than half of the population owns a radio while only 28% own a television and 25% own a mobile phone connected to the internet.” says the Benin guide.
I absolutely love the importance of woven fabrics, their color schemes and patterns, in these countries. Akin to the unbridled enthusiasm the Dutch portray for the color orange, and Brazillians for their flag’s yellow and green, these three African countries all have fascinating and deeply cultural appreciations of the colors found in their flag, coat of arms, or traditional fabrics.
“Wax fabrics are a significant feature of Beninese culture. They are worn for any occasion, including weddings, funerals, baptisms, and birthdays.” (Benin)
“Initially used during traditional and cultural ceremonies, traditional fabrics, especially Faso Dan Fani, have increasingly become trendy during official events.” (Burkina Faso)
“Red and black are used for mourning cloth, especially by the Akans, and therefore symbolize death and mourning. White is usually worn when a person 70 years of age or older dies, because the event is considered a “celebration of life” rather than a sad occasion.” (Ghana)
“Respect, smile, be polite, and helpful” in Benin, be prepared to repeat yourself multiple times in a sales process in Burkina Faso, and abide by “high customer service standards” in Ghana. This is pretty much the same across the guides, but what jumped out to me was the “punctuality” chapter, and I was particularly surprised upon reading that expectations around punctuality vary greatly between these three countries. In Benin people are “very strict about punctuality” whereas “time is not often respected in Burkina Faso” but “in some religious places time is scrupulously respected.” The Ghana guide goes into slightly more — and somewhat amusing — detail. “The culture of punctuality is not generally reflected in Ghanian society. … The language used to describe timing also depicts some level of uncertainty.” It’s described as acceptable to arrive up to two hours late when an appointment is set for “around 10 am.” Reminders a day and an hour before an event will boost participation. The Punctuality Ghana Foundation was called into existence, which “carries out campaigns to promote punctuality.”
OTHER CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS
Benin is a country of respect for anyone older than yourself, and care must be taken not to greet them with your left hand. Reasons are not given for some of these cultural considerations, but knowing them is a valuable first step. Beninese are “very sensitive about religion, ethnicity, and political considerations,” so it is best to avoid those topics and stick with chit chat about “sports, news and food … to break the ice.” The Burkina Faso guide does not include this chapter, but the Ghana guide says “appearance matters,” and it is “advisable to look decent.” Do not wear slippers to work or public offices.
Finally, some common terms or a short word list conclude these guides, as well as references to the resources used to complete the guides. Each guide has been researched and created by a different person, the profiles of which are on page (pages 68 and 69).
These guides are interesting, even to people outside of the language industry. I could imagine finding some of the cultural notes and history facts in a Lonely Planet guide. Consider these guides as an introduction to the countries. For me they sparked more questions that I would have liked to see answered in the guides themselves. But perhaps this is a good sign — they got me engaged enough to want to know more, rather than remain oblivious to the fascinating cultural and language considerations of Benin, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
The first three country guides produced by Bolingo Communications and Media Consult were developed with the assistance of three subject matter experts (SMEs) hailing from Ghana, Benin, and Burkina Faso.
The three SMEs have academic and professional backgrounds in community and organizational development, non-profit work, and linguistics and translation. With all of them being at least trilingual, they are representative of the rich cultural diversity of a continent comprising 54 countries and 2,000 languages where multilingualism is the norm.
They are also part of the rapidly growing language services sector in Africa, a burgeoning industry on the fastest growing continent, and we present their profiles as a way of showcasing not only their work, but the people behind it.
Hometown: I was born in Cotonou, the capital city of Benin, and raised in Accra, Ghana. I’ve lived in Nigeria and Ghana but I currently reside in Cotonou.
What languages do you speak?:
I speak English and French.
What is your educational and professional background?
I’m an aspiring polyglot. I wish to learn as many languages as possible. Currently, I speak English, French and Fon (a local language in Benin). Spanish and Arabic are next on my list of languages I’d like to learn in the next few years.
In most regions of Benin, especially in Cotonou, the average person speaks Fon or understands to in some degree. In fact, some people think that, like Mandarin Chinese in China, Fon should be made the official language of the country.
Due to my exposure to English at a young age, I developed a love for learning languages. I am currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in translation at the University of Abomey Calavi in Cotonou. I believe that translation is the best way to explore my love for languages while earning money.
During my training, I’ve had the opportunity to translate texts from a wide variety of sectors. Additionally, an internship at Besil Center, a local translation firm, has taught me a lot about the craft of translation.
Currently, thanks to the boom of remote working opportunities, I am a language service collaborator at Bolingo Communications and Media Consult. With this firm, I get to work on exciting projects such as the localization guide for my country, which has been an impactful learning process.
I’d love to visit Italy or Egypt because both countries boast of a rich cultural heritage that dates back to ancient times. I’d love to see the pyramids of Giza in Egypt or the Coliseum in Rome.
Emmanuel Clifford Gyetuah
Hometown: Bogoso, in the western region of Ghana.
What languages do you speak?
English, and three Ghanaian local languages: Twi, Fante, and Nzema. In primary schools in Ghana, we are taught how to read and write in some local languages. As a result, I am proud to be able to read and write Twi and Fante. Although Nzema is my native language, I am only able to speak it.
What is your educational and professional background?
I studied Geological Engineering, but right after I completed my studies I chose to begin a career in the development sector. For the past six years, I’ve worked with several national and international organizations to create platforms for youth engagement, and in 2020, I shared my experiences by publishing a book titled Leading Youth in Sustainable Development: A Handbook for Youth Leaders and Advocates.
Currently, I lead business development activities for Bolingo Communications and Media Consult, and this has opened up a whole new world to which I hadn’t been exposed before. I have the opportunity to learn a lot about the language services industry and about languages and cultures in particular. The most interesting aspect for me so far has been localization, especially after I began providing consultancy service for an international not-for-profit organization where I moderate content on a digital platform and ensure that it is appropriate for young Ghanaians between the ages of 18 and 25.
Jean Urbain Bansé
Hometown: I was born in Zabré, a small local area located in the mideast of Burkina Faso, but currently I live in Ouagadougou, which is the capital city.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Bissa, which is my mother tongue, French, English, and some German.
What is your educational and professional background?
I am currently studying for a master’s degree in translation and interpretation at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University in Ouagadougou. When I was a sophomore I translated letters between sponsors and their children, and every time I learned something new about other people, cultures, their thoughts and beliefs. Being able to make the children feel the love from their sponsors was the most significant reward. That’s why, when I was awarded a bachelor’s of arts degree in English in 2017, with a specialization in letters and foreign civilizations from Joseph Ki-Zerbo University, I applied for the master’s program in translation and interpretation.