Central African Republic cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
In the Central African Republic, as in many other countries in Africa, people have a communal lifestyle. They enjoy the contact and being around others comes naturally to them.
All topics of conversation are allowable for making a good impression. That said, do not talk about politics, and do not criticize or give your views on anything related to politics as you run the risk of being misinterpreted. You need to be interested in the person you are with to so that you will find all kinds of things to talk about, such as the family, neighbourhood, favourite sport, or job.
However, it is even better to say a few words in sango, the national language. Know how to say "hello" (Balao!), "how do you do?" (tongana nyè), "my name is... Alan" (iri ti mbi... Alan), etc. Not everyone feels comfortable speaking French, the official language. It depends on the person’s background. But, in general, everyone understands it.
A good initial subject of conversation is family. Asking people how their families are doing is a sign of respect that is greatly appreciated and it shows that you are interested in them. They will, in turn, ask about your family. If you have just arrived, it is not a good idea to jump right into talking about business. The people with whom you are talking will realize that you have had a long trip and need to rest up and relax before getting serious. People do not live at the same pace as you do and when it is time for you to get started you will have more than enough time to talk about work. It is not taboo to inquire about people’s birthplaces or even their ethnic origins. On the contrary, this may help you learn more about the CAR’s cultural diversity.
There are really no taboo subjects in the CAR. You should certainly not start up a conversation by talking about politics or personal relationships when you first meet someone. Initially, it is best to hold back a bit when talking about politics, as the people with whom you are speaking will first try to get your approval of their own viewpoints. If there is one subject that should be avoided, it would be making comparisons between living conditions in Canada and those in the CAR. People do not need to be reminded that they live in a country where economic conditions are difficult and they have their own pride. They are welcoming, warm, and generous people. This in itself is a great strength.
Naturally, humour is always appropriate and can be used at any time. However, avoid being humorous too often as it may damage your reputation. Also avoid using Canadianisms that people might not understand. Try using a few and you will see how people react to it.
When people meet one another, the first thing to do is shake hands. Whether or not a gesture is acceptable depends on the environment you are in. For example, friends will often snap their fingers to show that they are happy to see you; yet this kind of gesture is not acceptable in a more formal environment.
You do not need to stand a set distance away from someone when you first meet. The distance depends on the environment and geographic region. Eye contact is also important, but sometimes it can make people ill at ease.
Central Africans are generally extroverted and very expressive. They will be warm and frank, and will not put up walls; you can act the same way. Therefore, there is no set personal space you should maintain and often people find themselves in small spaces where people are almost glued to one another. People are used to this, so often conversations are at a very close distance. Everyone makes direct eye contact. It is very common to touch people’s hands, arms, shoulders, or backs; touching someone this way affirms friendly relations. People express themselves through gestures, face expressions, and expressions of happiness or anger. The tone of people’s voices is high particularly with expressions of happiness. Handshakes are important - not only when you first meet, but every time you greet your domestic staff, colleagues, partners, friends, the restaurant owner where you dine out, etc.
Display of emotion
Central Africans are generally very discreet and like to respect moral standards. Therefore, a display of extreme anger may be considered scandalous. Showing too much emotion might also be seen as a sign of weakness. I remember something my father told me: a man should never cry in public and should always keep his anger in control. This is an indication of the general attitude that pushes people to mask their emotions in public.
Displays of all emotions are common and acceptable, except displays of anger. You will certainly witness anger, but as an expatriate you should not get angry in front of others because if you do it will only serve to show others your weaknesses and damage your reputation. People may even say that you are racist, which is obviously not something that anyone wants to hear.
Dress, punctuality & formality
I think that in our country "clothing makes the man." The way you dress shows who you are; and when you go to work, dressing properly (and as a function of your level of responsibility) shows respect for yourself as well as for others. Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to wear casual attire.
It is best to communicate politely with others. Never give the impression that they do not know anything and that it is up to you to do everything, even if you are the person in charge. Increasingly, people are fighting this kind of colonialist attitude. The best thing to do is to propose an idea and discuss it with your team instead of imposing it. A superior deserves respect and colleagues deserve to work in a good team environment. It is not permissible to address your superior with the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French); nor should you call superiors by their first names. This is only allowed between colleagues or with subordinates.
One of the biggest shocks in the CAR is not the culture, but the climate. It is warm and humid which means that a suit and tie is not mandatory unless you are invited to an official ceremony where dignitaries will be in attendance. Clothing made of 100% cotton is recommended and generally people wear well-ironed short-sleeved shirts and dress pants. Dress shoes are worn with socks as a rule. In the workplace you should avoid wearing t-shirts, shorts, and sandals as you will look like a tourist and lose credibility.
Central Africans are not very formal. At first you will address them with the formal form of "you" ("vous", in French) and use their last names. Otherwise, it is fine to use the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French), particularly since Central Africans know that Canadians use this form and do not mean it in a condescending or paternalistic way. People will appreciate it if you learn a few basic works in Sango, the national language; however, be aware that everyone has studied French and can speak it very well. In order to be understood, it is important to pronounce every syllable and avoid using Quebec regionalisms such as "t’sé" ("you know"), which does not mean anything to a Central African. Things are a bit more complicated when it comes to written correspondence, as the rules about how to address people are different from those in North America. Ask your colleagues for advice about this.
The pace of things is slower in the workplace and absenteeism is frequent. You will just have to adjust to this and deal with it. Mourning tops the list of reasons for missing work as it may take up to two weeks for someone to travel to their hometown to attend the funeral of a close friend or family member. In large families, a "close family member or friend" may include quite a number of people. Daily life, such as helping out a sick parent, cashing a paycheque, or renewing an official document may take an entire day, causing absenteeism. You too will be confronted with delays for all sorts of reasons: the computer system is not working, the civil servant you were supposed to meet to discuss your file is absent (this happens often), deliveries are late (the country is closed in and supply lines are not always straightforward). Nevertheless, you will move past this as long as you set realistic deadlines by keeping in mind the obstacles you will face.
Preferred managerial qualities
The most sought after qualities include patience, listening skills, friendliness, and professional qualifications. Only the person who knows everything better than everyone else is qualified to be the boss. Westerners face a great challenge since people expect a lot of them.
In Central Africa, concept of time is entirely different from what it is in Canada. Transportation systems are not well developed, which means that despite good intentions, people may arrive late for work.
The fact that a director or supervisor is not from the country or region would not present any problems. The most important thing is to prove oneself and show that one is open to the country’s culture and way of thinking. In order to know how others feel about you, just observe employee performance in the workplace—if they are very respectful and pleased to see you, things are fine. If they are dissatisfied or displeased, they will hand their work in late, be lacking in motivation, and react strongly to the slightest bump in the road.
Leadership, integrity, and honesty are the main qualities that people look for in a superior. It is important that a person be recognized by his social circle as having these qualities.
The fact that you are a foreigner does not pose a problem so long as you have an open mind and are competent. The only obstacle would be if your position was coveted by a competent local who believes himself to be well-qualified; his frustration could negatively affect the situation.
Meeting others outside of the workplace is important. Central Africans are naturally warm people who will try to get to know you and will frequently invite you to all kinds of events (e.g., baptisms, weddings, going to meet the family, going dancing, etc.). Participating in these events every now and then, if your schedule allows, will help you learn things and people will respect you more. You are now part of the family! If you do not try to share or understand the host country’s culture and people, you will never know what they think of you. This is particularly true in the CAR. But be careful! Some invitations come from very "interested" people.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Generally, orders are handed down from the top, from superiors to subordinates. Depending on how the responsibilities are divided, people carry out the tasks assigned to their position. Except in cases of emergency, you should always run your ideas by those in charge before executing them. This way, they are aware and in control of the situation and whatever happens, you will not be held responsible.
It all depends on your job description and whether the project is international cooperation or development-related or the result of private investment. With regard to decision-making in a development project, it is best for decisions to be made on a consensus basis with local partners and in accordance with project goals. Even if you are in charge (you are the project manager), your partners will give you valuable advice on local customs that you might not necessarily have taken into account. Naturally, we are talking about honest partners who are not looking for personal gain, which is quite commonly the case. In privately funded projects, the CAR is still operating with a style of management that goes almost all the way back to colonial times. You are the boss so you can make decisions whether or not the means to monitor implementation are in place!!! This is the way things are. Of course, nothing is stopping you from introducing more modern management methods, but control measures should remain tight.
In general, people are not shy about expressing their ideas, particularly those relating to development projects, and will contribute constructive viewpoints. After all, the project is usually for the benefit of their fellow countrymen and they are the ones who best know their country’s limitations and needs. In the private sector it is more difficult to elicit co-workers’ and junior employees’ ideas unless they may have developed this kind of expertise by having been trained abroad.
It is possible to consult your immediate supervisor. It is possible that you may not receive any feedback, but you will surely get some responses and good advice for ways to follow-up. Quite often, due to their welcoming character, Central Africans keep in mind that you will not understand all local behaviour. Therefore, they will try to protect you as if they were your older brothers.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Gender equality is still far from reality in the Central African Republic. However, in the workplace you should respect female colleagues as well as other females in the organization. Girls (women) in a position of responsibility get as much as respect as a man in the same position would; yet their authority may be questioned if they tend to impose their ideas in an aggressive fashion.
Most Central Africans are devout and the majority are practising Christians. There is no religious discrimination. Christians and Muslims work together and large gatherings (prayer days, for example) are organized by all the faiths.
There are different social classes: the elite, who have a good standard of living and the majority who have trouble making ends meet. People will react if they feel exploited or abused.
For some time now and with the advent of democracy in Central Africa and its resulting social effects, ethnic tensions have been coming to the surface. The repercussions of these attitudes may make for an unhealthy work environment and hinder cooperation and teamwork.
Compared to other countries in the sub-region, the CAR has made a lot of progress in the area of gender equality. Women are active, integrated into society and not afraid to make their voices heard. Many hold leadership positions.
There is a great deal of religious tolerance and many churches of different faiths work together. There are no real impact on the workplace.
The class you belong to will depend on whether or not you are close to those who have power. Without generalizing, this is why Central Africans are rather humble about their social status and do not deny their usually modest backgrounds. Upper classes are closer to expatriates (entrepreneurs and volunteers from France, Lebanese shopkeepers, high-level civil servants involved in multilateral cooperation projects) and will keep a distance from their subordinates and with respect to the local culture. However, once again generalizations should be avoided.
Until quite recently, the RCA was made up of a cultural mosaic of more than thirty different ethnic groups, who all lived in relative harmony. Unfortunately, André Kolingba came to power in 1981 and the practice of tribalism and nepotism were used to favour the Yakoma ethnic group. All major public and semi-public administration jobs, including army posts, were held by people from this ethnic group. Kolingba was driven out of power during the 1993 elections and his successor, Ange-Félix Patassé also favoured his own ethnic group and family, but things ended the same way for him in 2003. The new regime intends to promote reconciliation by creating a united national government where all political and ethnic groups would be represented. The majority of Central Africans want to live in peace and harmony. In the future you should no longer experience practices common especially in the context of a large projects such as having someone forced upon you who shares the same background as those in power. At this stage in the game, it is best to read the papers to keep up to date on how things are evolving and whether the regime will keep its promises.
It is important to establish personal relations with a client in order to create trust. It is not possible to conduct business with a stranger. Trust does not develop with just one meeting; it takes time and several encounters to get to know the person and give him/her your trust.
Yes, it is important to establish personal relations with like-minded individuals who share your interests. Even though it has 600 000 inhabitants, Bangui is still a small city where everyone knows one another and hangs out at the same places, particularly within the same social circles. You can talk about many things and business often mixes with personal relations at after-work activities in more comfortable surroundings. An invitation for a drink is often used to establish personal relations.
Privileges and favouritism
It is obvious that after spending a certain amount of time at work your relationships will evolve. Some people will ask for favours or special privileges as a result of this. My personal point of view is that a privilege or favour may be given to an employee if he/she deserves it and this may work as an incentive for others to perform better. In order to compensate people for a job well done, you can either give bonuses or congratulate them several times in public.
When you need temporary workers, it is best to take your employees’ suggestions seriously since they already know the people. As a case in point, it has been noted that it is easier for employees about to retire to train a person of their choice (generally a son or close relative) than someone who is imposed upon them. After many years of service, it is okay to give this kind of favour to someone who has been a good worker.
People are very sensitive about raises and possibilities for advancement. This often causes problems; therefore, you should respect the legislation in place to avoid causing frustration or conflict in the company. In effect, due to the nature of politics, government tolerates other forms of favouritism much more than private enterprise.
No, not necessarily. The most common request will be for you to hire close family members or friends, or recommend them to another organization where they think you might be able to exert some influence. Nobody will hold anything against you if you take the time to explain the limits to your ability to grant privileges. Nevertheless, nothing is stopping you from recommending someone if you recognize the individual’s skills and might be able to further his/her career.
Conflicts in the workplace
To resolve a work-related problem with a colleague, it is best to begin by directly confronting him/her in private and then involving a third party (someone whom everyone gets along with), if need be. You can also express your feelings directly in public during meetings, if necessary.
There is something wrong when someone no longer shows interest in you or does not speak to you as they previously did. In certain cases, people may not complete their work adequately or work with you in a transparent manner.
In private, yes, this is possible, but it should never be done publicly and should rarely be done directly. Even though Central Africans are very warm, they are also sensitive and there are limits that should not be pushed. There are two ways around this: either emphasize the consequences or the outcome of the problem instead of focusing on the person’s conduct or, better still, call on a third party, a friend or colleague you trust, preferably someone who is older. He will be better able to figure out the appropriate level of language to approach the problem without offending the colleague in question and will be able to obtain the promises needed to resolve the situation.
It is very difficult to know if colleagues are offended by or want to comment on something you have done. This kind of situation may arise particularly when you first start your job. Some popular expressions that you may consider to be harmless may actually offend others. Colleagues will undoubtedly not speak to you about it, but may adopt a cooler attitude toward you. Sometimes the change in attitude is subtle and you may only notice it a few weeks later.
Motivating local colleagues
The main motivational factors include regular pay (number one factor), trust, personal satisfaction, good working conditions, an excellent team able to tackle any challenges that may arise, involvement with projects, as well as deserved recognition of superiors.
Professional satisfaction, devotion, loyalty, and job security are at the top of the list. Central Africans know that having good working conditions and a very good salary is utopic.
Recommended books, films & foods
J.P Ngoupandé’s L’Afrique sans la France (Africa without France), E. Goyomidé’s Le dernier survivant de la Caravane (The Last Surviver of the Caravan) and the Silence de la forêt (The Silence of the Forest), Roger Delpey’s Manipulations, and René Maran’s Batouala.
In Canada it is very difficult to find reading material about the CAR. In a specialized travel bookstore you might find a book or two. Things are a bit better on the Internet and I recommend you look at www.sangonet.com, an excellent site that is very comprehensive and also has a news section that includes links to the different press. You can also type "Central Africa", "CAR", or "Central African Republic" in a Web browser and you will get many hits. Finding typical food in Canada will be difficult unless you befriend a Central African expatriate.
Places to visit
Boali Falls, Caïmans Lake, Lobaye pygmies, and the national parks (Manovo, Saint Floris, Ndélé, etc.)
You can attend the following groups’ music concerts: Musiki national, Canon Starts, Génération Mandata, etc.
Le citoyen, Hirondelle, Vouma, Le Novateur, Bè Afrika Opinion, etc. You can also read the following magazines: Afrique Education, Jeune Afrique l’Intelligent, Afrique Asie and others that talk about the Central African Republic.
The major sporting events are football at the Barthélemy Boganda Stadium and Basketball at the Martin Ngoko Centre.
Comedy shows are often in sango, the national language, but at the Alliance Française in Bangui (AFB) there are many recreational activities such as traditional dances, paintings, sculptures, etc.
The main cafés downtown that everyone goes to include the Phénicia and the La Paix bakery.
Making contact with people is easy in the Central African Republic. All you have to do is ask for a guide and he/she will introduce you to a large network of friends.
Political instability that resulted from the 1996-97 uprising and the attempted coup d’état in March 2003 impacted cultural life in a major way. The Bangui Centre Culturel Français was an amazing centre of activity (which includes music, dance, theatre performances as well as a library), but was burnt down during the upheaval. The Government of France has not reinvested in new infrastructure; however, the Association des Français à l’étranger (association for French people working abroad) opened a somewhat smaller centre. Bars, cafés, and cinemas often change hands and from one month to the next it if difficult to know if stores will still be open and where musicians might be. There is still a sense of insecurity in the neighbourhoods (such as during the 2003 situation) and, therefore, people limit their travel. My best piece of advice is to go to the Central African tourism office, or even try to meet with the programming director and his national radio colleagues. They are very open-minded people who know about all the cultural and sporting activities and will be able to direct you to places that might be of interest.
The first and only major national hero is the father of the Central African Republic, Barthélemy BOGANDA. The anniversary of his death is observed on March 29; his tragic death in an airplane crash in 1959 is still suspect for Central Africans. He fought tooth and nail for the country’s independence; before which it had been Oubangui Chari, a part of French Equatorial Africa.
Without a doubt, one of the few people to wear the title of "hero" is Barthélémy Boganda, the father of the country’s independence. Unfortunately, he tragically disappeared in an airplane crash (the causes of which were never determined) at the beginning of his term in office in 1960. If he had not been not so oppressive and cruel, Jean-Bedel Bokassa might also have been considered in the ranks of a national hero. During a good part of his reign, (1966-1979) the CAR had a very prosperous period which some still remember nostalgically.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are not really any shared historical events between the CAR and Canada that could negatively affect professional relations. Quite the contrary, Canada’s recent involvement in development work and peacekeeping efforts (MINCURA, the United Nations mission in Central Africa) have been greatly appreciated.
No. Canadians are well viewed and appreciated.
To my knowledge there are none since relations have been cooperative and not at all colonial.
To my knowledge there are none. All Canadians that I knew who worked in the CAR (about 50 in total) enjoyed their experience abroad and always respected local values.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter, the youngest of three children, was born in the Central African Republic (CAR) and grew up in the capital city of Bangui where he studied Economics at the University of Bangui. His work has taken him abroad at several instances to Cameroon and subsequently to Spain and France. He has recently immigrated to Canada for his work and has lived in Montreal for the past year. He has a common-law wife and three children who are still in Africa.
Your cultural interpreter, the fifth of six children, is a native French-Canadian born in Montreal, Canada. He grew up in the city and his work as a leather worker and shoemaker took him abroad to the Central African Republic (CAR), where he worked in partnership with OCSD (Canadian Organization for Solidarity and Development, now a part of Oxfam Quebec). There he worked with a local paediatric surgeon who treated children living with handicaps and fitted them with artificial limbs. Being a musician and loving all kinds of music made it easier for your cultural interpreter to interact with others and integrate himself culturally. He later returned to Montreal to study management and then worked in Benin (1997-2000) and Guinea (2001-2002). He currently lives in Montreal. He has been married since 1991 (his wife is Central African Republic) and he has three children.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.