What I Learned About Money in Africa

09/28/2015 05:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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In our western society, money represents a significant part of life. We are constantly busy making it, spending it or saving it.
As a money coach who enjoys international travels, I'm always curious to see how money is perceived and managed in other cultures.
This past summer, I had the chance to travel to Eastern Africa. One of the most memorable experiences of my trip was visiting a traditional Maasai village and other local communities where over 120 different tribes live.

At the end of my trip, I reflected back on some of my observations and discussions with the locals. Here are 5 valuable money lessons I learned in Africa:

Resourcefulness is Omnipresent

Let's take a cow for example. How many uses for a cow do we have in our western societies?
I can count two: milk and meat.
The Maasai however, left with very little resources in the regions they inhabit, are able to find many more uses for a cow: They drink the cow milk but also its blood (extracted without killing the cow), they eat its meat, they use its skin as a mat to sleep on, and they build their huts with wood and cow dung. Cow dung also seems to be popular in Rwanda where it is used to make traditional paintings (Imigongo).

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Another tribe I visited also found many uses for banana trees: of course, they sell the bananas at the market, but they also use the banana tree branches to make brooms and use the leaves to build their houses' roofs.
Seeing this level of resourcefulness put in practice has taught me to become more creative at using what I already have at my disposal.

Cash is King

Of course, the concept of credit cards and spending money you have not yet earned is almost non-existent. This entails that it can take a family up to 15 years to build their house.
Our guide explained that every year, families use the money they earned from selling their harvest produce to buy a certain number of bricks. If it was a good harvest, they would buy more bricks; a less abundant harvest meant fewer bricks.
Because they don't take a mortgage to build the house, once they have bought enough bricks and they are ready to build it, they own it 100% once it's completed.
In other words, they follow my favorite motto of "Save Now, Buy Later".
They are surely not after instant gratification of owning a home and spending the next 20 years paying for it.

Contentment Stems From Within

Most people I visited in the local communities do not own a bank account and own very little possessions. Yet there was always a smile on their face and a sense of contentment they naturally projected.
Seeing the children joyfully play with rocks, a blanket or an old car tire showed me that, contrary to our belief, we need much less to be happy. Happiness truly stems from within and is not found in a store or in "stuff".

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Community's Wellbeing Comes First

When I wanted to visit the local communities to observe their way of life, I hired a guide from the Cultural Tourism Programme. The tour money I paid went directly to help the tribes I was visiting.
In those villages, everything is done for the benefit of the community. I came across artists painting Xmas balls and carving African wood statues, only to sell them for the benefit of the community as a whole. I truly felt like everyone is taken care of and no one is forgotten. Resources and skills are shared, profits are shared, and everyone is looked after.
They projected a deep sense of resilience and strength, because the tribe members were working for their collective, rather than their individual, well-being.

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Having Fun is Free

In our western societies, we tend to associate having fun with spending money. Yet on so many occasions during my trip, I noticed children and adults having fun that did not involve any money: in the evening, adults would gather on the beach and have some sort of acrobatic competition; other evenings, I would see them playing soccer, diving off a cliff, or practicing martial arts in a group.
It was truly a joy to watch them have so much fun outdoors, with little or no equipment.

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As one of my favorite quotes says "Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer."
As a money coach, this enriching trip surely taught me a few lessons and helped me better understand the role of money in different cultures.

What money lessons have you learned from your travels? I would love to hear them in the comments below.