[Loving Africa 8] Africa – a continent of mistrust?

Just two nights of sleep before, I experienced my first burglary incident right before my eyes.

I do like to thank my friends and family who have expressed great care for me from home, my fellow colleague and her kind driver in Togo who immediately came to pick me up in in the middle of night and offered me a bed in her house – I could not ask for better care and comfort from my host here.

Whilst burglary and stealing are certainly no news to Africa, this experience remains strange, emotional and thought provoking. It was perhaps because such incident occurred when it was least expected. For the 10 weeks which I have been in Togo, I have stayed in an apartment which I found through a well-known app. The location was a lawyer’s office with two small apartments built behind. The property owner was a friendly local Togolese who was passionate in ensuring that his guests have a pleasant stay.Me with our African driver when I left Togo 我在多哥與司機的合照

It was a Sunday night around 10 p.m. I had just arrived home after a dinner party celebrating Chinese New Year. The British lady who stayed in the apartment next door was out of town and the lawyer’s office was closed. I had locked the front gate of the premise, but left the door of my room unlocked for some cool fresh air to come through. I went to shower and left my personal belongings on my bed – not far from the reach of the door. As I was happily enjoying my shower when I heard noises from outside. As I poked out my head, I saw an African man walking through my door! Without any clothes on, I was extremely terrified and asked – “who is it?” feeling defenseless. Oddly enough, this suspicious man answered – “it’s me” and quickly ran off. I rapidly put on my clothes and came out to lock the door behind him. I shortly realized that my iPhone on the bed had disappeared. However, my wallet, computer and more importantly my passport remained on the bed. I am very lucky and am certainly thankful that nothing worse had happened.

Subsequent to this event, we made a police declaration report and advised the embassy. It can be concluded that this petty theft did not break through to come into the premise, whilst the owner denies it but I am convinced that the thief had a set of the keys to the front gate. For me, this was perhaps the most difficult to accept – an insider had abused our trust within this household. Indeed, incidents of dishonest African maids and drivers are everywhere to be seen. Many of my friends often describes me as naïve and trusting others too easily. Indeed, I grew up in a world where I was taught that people can be trusted. Yet, in my 10 weeks in Africa I continue to ponder on this same question. Can any genuine friendship exist between the “white” (i.e. non-Africans) and the “black” apart from the existence of potential financial benefits?

In my short experience living amongst Africans, my “trust-o-meter” often flashes red-light in what locals tell me. I refer not only to the vendors on the street trying to rip me off in gaining an extra few dollars, but more so the upper social class Africans whom I work with in the financial industry and even pastors preaching at church. Does a culture of mistrust exist in Africa and if so, why?

Certain research shows that the low levels of trust within Africa can be traced back to the legacy of the slave trade. Initially, slaves were captured primarily through tribe organized raids and warfare. But as the trade progressed, individuals turned on each other — including friends and family members — into kidnapping, tricking, and selling each other into slavery. Some studies done in Africa even shows that an individuals’ trust in others is correlated to the impact of their ancestors by the slave trade. Indeed, history is significant today because it is the past which drives the evolution of cultural norms at present.

In my short time in Togo, I could not come to any concrete conclusion in this culture of mistrust. Some people describes “trust” as an eraser – it gets smaller and smaller after every mistake. I do prefer to live thinking from the other side of this metaphor – trust can also be built up every time we meet someone trustworthy. Culture can also continue to evolve through a rebuilt of trust.