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Jemila Abdulai — My Experiences Working in Anglophone and Francophone Africa

by | Aug 13, 2020 | Africa

Jemila has been around my circle of friends since I moved to Ghana in 2012. She grew up in Ghana, but, like most people I gravitate towards, she has lived and traveled all over the world.


After graduating from the prestigious Wesley Girls’ High School in Cape Coast (Ghana), she moved to the United States. While there, she earned a Bachelor’s from Mount Holyoke College and Master’s degree from John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.


She moved back to the continent and has been busy as a digital strategist and marketer, organizing events, consulting for international organizations, all while running, an award-winning blog turned digital platform and company.


Jemila is also one of the few Ghanaians that I know that speaks French and has a wealth of experience working all throughout Africa. So, it was logical to hear about her experiences about the difference between Anglophone and Francophone African countries.


Over to you Jemila.


I have an economics background that has led me to doing a lot of work in Francophone African countries. I studied French throughout my education in Ghana, up until high school and in university.


I also got a certification for professional French, while studying for my master’s degree. I had learnt French for over a decade before working in Francophone Africa.


I moved to Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) in 2014 for a year to work for the African Development Bank (ADB). I have also lived in Senegal and Tunisia and worked in Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea and Niger.


Most of my work is in the International Development space. I do a lot of programming, operations, knowledge management, communications and digital. It depends on the project and who I am working with.


More than a difference in language


Most Ghanaians don’t bother learning French, because English is the more predominant language. Ghanaians are, in that sense, part of the majority. They can travel and do business all over the world without having to learn French. Even French-speaking countries make allowances for English, because it is a predominant global language.


Ghana is surrounded by Francophone countries so the logical thing would be for us to take learning French more seriously. Sadly, we don’t because there is a historic and cultural aspect to our differences with colonization.


It is about more than the language: Ghanaians are very internal looking. We focus on what is happening in our own country and we, sometimes, look to the West. We don’t seem to care about what is happening elsewhere. We don’t realize how events happening in neighboring countries could affect us. Even if we know the impact, we don’t care enough to want to do anything about it.


This was very clear to me after the terrorist attack in Grand Bassam, which happened only a couple hours away from the Ghanaian border. For over a week, there was no statement from the Ghanaian government. Some people were talking about it on Twitter, but that was it.


I have a special connection with Côte d’Ivoire since I lived and worked there. I studied International Relations so, whenever something happens in the West African subregion, I can see how it may affect Ghana. It might impact us with regards to policy, access, markets, trade or in this case, security.


So, I spoke to a few people and decided to write an article that got published in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest newspaper. I also shared it on social media and specific professional networking platforms, to raise awareness, especially among folks working in the public sphere. The BBC highlighted my article and shortly after, the government started talking about putting in place security measures, in case there was a similar terrorist attack in Ghana.


Ghanaians are a different breed


It seems like we have a chip on our shoulder because we are the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. I hate that we are still relying on that achievement after more than 60 years.


We still think that we are leaders although, in some cases, other African countries might do things better than we do. It seems that we have a chip on our shoulder that we rely on and that prevents us from really looking at the rest of the continent. That influences why people in Ghana might not choose to learn French. Because we consider Ghana to be the pinnacle; to have most of or all the answers.


In general, Ghanaians don’t go to school thinking of getting jobs in Togo or Senegal. It takes someone who already has a regional or global outlook to think in that way. The average person is not thinking about that.


On the flipside, many of my francophone friends would, one day, love to visit Accra or work in Ghana. The economy makes moving to Ghana and some anglophone countries seem like opportunities worth migrating for. To do that, they would be more willing to learn English and about our people and culture.


Unfortunately, the reverse is not usually the case. Most English-speaking Africans are not thinking about moving to francophone countries for opportunities. So, they don’t see why they should take the time to learn the French language.


Another important factor is that it is easier to learn English than French. There are similar words in both languages since they are connected. The spelling may change sometimes, but some words are pronounced in the same way.


The problem is that there are too many rules in French! And too many exceptions to those rules… People in Ghana don’t want to deal with that. If you speak French, it is easier for you to understand English. Try translating text from English to French and you’ll end up using an extra page!


Variations in business environments


I love traveling and according to the Been app I use, I have been to 38% of Africa. Each country has its own way of conducting business. In Ghana there is a lot of bureaucracy, procedures and protocols, but we don’t mind bending the rules a bit.


By contrast, I find that Francophones are sticklers for protocol. They get offended when the protocol is not respected. So, they try to put in place some level of order and they expect you to follow it.


I learned that the hard way with an incident that happened on one of my projects. We had been working closely with government officials for about two years. They knew all the members of my team on a personal level. We were trying to set up a meeting and had already had initial conversations, on and off the record.


When it was time to send the official message to suggest dates for the actual meeting, we sent them an email. It was a big deal that we didn’t deliver an official letter addressed to the director. In the end, they boycotted the meeting. That derailed our project a little bit, but we got it back on track.


That was a very telling moment for me, because I already had an inkling that they were sticklers for protocol. I had realized that addressing people by their proper title is important: “Monsieur le directeur” or “Madame la directrice”.


During meetings, it is important to acknowledge everybody with all protocols observed. In Ghana, you can get away with saying “ladies and gentlemen” and keep it moving. But there, even if you don’t mention everyone, you have to say “all protocols observed”, at some point.


This incident with our meeting confirmed the fact that even when you are familiar, they still expect you to respect the proper protocol. It was a big learning moment for me.


Balancing it all


Francophone Africans are very sensitive that French is not the prevalent language for doing business. It is a touchy topic especially when you are planning for regional events across Africa. You always have to ensure that you arrange for translation and interpretation.


From my experience, there should be a balance between French and English speakers on panels. This is especially true if the event takes place in a French-speaking country. It turns out that it is a big deal.


Business is business


For the most part in Francophone countries, people don’t like to fraternize while working even though French culture has the reputation of being more ‘laissez faire’ or at ease. This may seem ironic, but when it’s work time it is business only. For example, I can’t think of a moment where we had to say a prayer before starting a meeting in Abidjan or Tunis. We didn’t do that because religion is personal.


In contrast, Ghanaians are always working and fraternizing at the same time. In Ghana, you will take part in the prayers before meetings, whether you like it or not. If you don’t then you will get some side eyes. People in your office will also invite you to church.


It makes sense though because, as Ghanaians, we tend to be more lax. So, the division between private/personal and public/official is blurry. Francophone professionals are more sticklers for protocol, so they are clearer lines in that respect.


In Abidjan, you could actually work with someone and not even know their religion unless you engage with them outside of work. It’s only when colleagues become friends, that they might share their beliefs with you. That was my experience there.


I also think that people in francophone countries are more religiously tolerant. I don’t know why and it’s ironic, because they don’t open up about religion much. They are very accepting, especially in Abidjan.


People are more open to have conversations about traditional religions or not follow Islam or Christianity. They might follow their ethnic group’s religion and that’s cool.


I experienced the same thing in Senegal, where 96% of the population is Muslim and 4% Catholic, but they all celebrate Christmas.


Then you end up asking yourself whether it is the influence of the French elements with the notion of fraternity? Whereas for Anglophones, there is no real sense of commonwealth — even though it exists. We are solitary and “sovereign” nations.


Senegalese welcome


In Senegal, even my colleagues would welcome me into their homes. Thanks to that, one of my colleagues ended up being more like a sister. My roommate and I would ask her where we could buy various items and she would go with us over the weekend. Or she would invite us to her house for Eid.


After a certain point, you become part of the family. A lot of African expats have told me that it is not the case in Ghana. It is actually very hard because Ghanaians like to socialize outside their homes. They might invite you to come eat at their house only once.


Taking the best from both worlds


Francophone Africans love life and enjoy it to the fullest!


I can’t think of a place where I did not see it. Senegal, definitely! Côte d’Ivoire, yes! Togo, yes but I didn’t socialize as much when I was there. The people of Burkina Faso are amazing! They’re just so friendly! And this is coming from a Ghanaian. The joie de vivre and hospitality is in Ghana too, but in Ghana you are usually a foreigner or you must be in a group of close friends to really feel it.


In Francophone countries, they want to hang out, party with you. It’s natural and it’s nice!


I hate that we have to always compare France and Britain, but they had an influence on West Africa. The French influence is felt in the appreciation for culture and art. And then when you think about being more restrained, you think about the British. These are important elements in understanding the differences.


A different approach to work


In Abidjan, people tended to be more direct. Ghanaians don’t like to be direct. We will beat around the bush and then expect you to figure out what we mean. That’s how a lot of our communication tends to be in work settings. That approach might end up being refreshing to some people in Francophone countries.


I used to do a lot of travel-related work (booking and organizing travel for events that we were organizing). The travel department handled everything for the whole organization. Their work is never finished, since people are constantly traveling.


I tried to send them emails with my travel requests. At first, I wouldn’t get a response because they were inundated. So I thought to myself “how should I go about something like this?” An American tends to think “buy them coffee” and take a genuine interest in them. So that’s what we did!


On my way up in the mornings, I would stop by the travel office to say hi to the main person that we would work with. If I saw her sitting alone in the cafeteria during lunch, I would sit with her and chat. So, we got to know each other as people and not as someone you are emailing because you need something done.


That actually helped when we had last-minute requests. I would send an email, then follow up with a quick phone call. She would stop everything to help me, because I brought a bit of the way we would do things here in Ghana. I mixed a bit of personal with the professional.


On the flip side, I also learned from the Francophone way of being quite direct. That helps me as a freelance consultant especially when it comes to talking about contracts and money. I go straight to the point! Or if I can’t do it in person, I send an email and I am to the point. So, you learn both ways and use what works best.



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