reviewed by Dr. George Simons
When it comes to Africa, my school geography and history classes fail me entirely. So, the opportunity to read and review Benoît Thery’s latest book delightfully filled a lingering desire to illuminate the darkest corner of my interculturalist’s mind. I suspect that I am also not alone in the profession with significant lacunae to fill in this regard. So, first, thank you, Benoît, for this comprehensive and easy to read volume.
Existing stereotypes of Africa and Africans will be quickly dislodged by page after page of plainly stated factual evidence. How has this massive continent been shaped, how should it be defined, who and whence its peoples and what their stories? That Africa appears to some to be without movement and history ignores its enormously diverse and turbulent past and says more about our lack of knowledge and interest than it does about the continent itself.
Limited awareness of slavery and colonialism, for example, is a common knowledge deficit. What little we are likely to be familiar with will inevitably reflect our own story and interests as we understand them. As a result, many of us will be unaware of the many centuries of slave trading that are traced in these pages back to antiquity.
What can beginners like myself learn in reading this book? Above all, we can acquire a new perspective shaped by the abundance of facts it relates. First, it addresses how we define Africa and what we believe about the continent and its peoples. This is then enriched by a detailed historical panorama of the kingdoms and empires, over the centuries, as they developed and changed, and also sometimes disappeared due to both internal factors and conflicts with neighbors. The book also traces the social effects and cultural impact of the numerous invasions from abroad, starting from antiquity onward, up to and including the details of the European colonization story, which is not over. We start to wonder over the Chinese chapter that is now being written.
We learn where, when and how indigenous culture was shaped, not only from its roots but by the religions of invaders both military and missionary and the development of syncretistic movements, brotherhoods and reactionary cults.
Following this rich first part of the book addressing these “Cultural Foundations in African History and Values”, Thery turns his attention in the second part to “Management Adaptation” in the African continent. Building on the essential background in the first part, the author launches into a present-day analysis that explores how the dimensions of contemporary life, social and political structures, demographics, linguistic and cultural groupings and their diversity pose intercultural challenges. These challenges are found both within the population itself as well as in how it confronts outsiders doing business both within the continent and from abroad.
Who are Africa’s peoples? What are they like? What do they like and dislike? What do they believe and how do they live out these beliefs in the African environment? Answers to these questions require a close look at the styles of management in politics, society and business that have grown out of the cultures revealed to us in the first part of the book. Then we must look at what may be learned and practiced by outsiders, particularly by Westerners who have had some success at managing or participating in businesses and projects on the continent.
While many interculturalists may find the author’s use of the classic Hofstede dimensions in his analysis a bit problematic, the rough comparisons that they provide at least give some focus on where to look for adaptation in managing and conducting business in a variety of African contexts. Several of the detailed case studies that follow this analysis, however, offer more context-rich awareness of the dynamics involved in cross-cultural situations and lead to some considerations for comprehending them and–by adjusting our mentality–responding and behaving both appropriately and effectively.
Much wants more, of course. News media such as CNN and BBC have for some time now been offering regular programs portraying the African renaissance, in business, social progress, culture and the arts, which succeed to a degree in raising our consciousness. However, this book implicitly but clearly poses the deeper question about what is needed for the success of the African renaissance on the continent itself, and how we can see it in context, respect it, support it and even participate in it. The appearance of this volume coincides with SIETAR Europa’s initiation of a Special Interest Group on Africa and thus provides a vademecum for those interested in perusing these questions and filling in what is a neglected area of knowledge and know-how for many in our profession.
This book is published by EMS Editions, Management & Society, 2020, ISBN 978 2-37687-354-9
Read more about Dr. George Simons,awell known figure in the intercultural field, the founder of diversophy games. We are delighted that George is the gold sponsor of SIETAR Switzerland’s 2020 Congress this coming fall.