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Adapting to local communication styles in Nigeria

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When Hazel Bryce travelled to Nigeria with the Methodist Church to work as part of a mental health rehabilitation community for homeless people, she found that she had to adapt her style of communication in order to be effective. Here she talks about her experience

Hazel’s project was based in Igboland, a predominately Christian area in the south east of Nigeria.
English was spoken by workers but generally not by the residents. Igbo, the tribal language, was the preferred method of communication. Hazel’s specific role was in a community-based rehabilitation project for disabled children.

‘Communication is an essential part of all care. For communication to be effective it is necessary to understand the contexts in which we work as well as the social norms and expectations of that culture,’ she says.

‘When we are exposed to unfamiliar cultures we need to consciously assimilate their norms and values in order to communicate appropriately.

‘Communication focuses on the interaction between people, whether verbal or non verbal, written or auditory.‘

The effects of good communication are:

• To enhance good relations
• To foster understanding
• To prevent conflict
• To promote respect for one another
• To promote a health self-image

Differences in community visiting in Nigeria

Hazel points out that in the UK, a home visit would entail going straight to the person’s home after arranging the visit on the telephone or by letter.

However, she found that in Nigeria, especially for the first visit, it is essential that she first visit the ‘eze’ (prince) of the area to declare her intention. The eze would then give her permission to see people in his village.

On subsequent visits, it was appropriate to first visit the prime minister for the area (appointed by the eze) before going on to see the family you want to visit.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘it was necessary to obtain approval of the council of chiefs before going to a village to commence work.’

The chiefs, who are usually older men in the village, hold a lot of status and power and can be distinguished from other members of the population by the wearing of a striped bobble hat or red beret. The council of chiefs make decisions about the running of the village.

Local etiquette

‘When meeting these men,’ says Hazel, ‘they generally shake hands with all the men in your party.

‘The more senior person extends his hand first. The handshake would usually be quite firm and long. As a woman, it was not expected that I would always shake hands, so I took the lead from the most senior person present,’ she says.

‘You would then be invited to sit in a reception room, the best room in the house, while someone would be sent to buy kola (the traditional welcome in Igboland).

‘Generally, (though there were differences in each village), people would introduce themselves with their full title.

‘It was important to address people by their full title throughout the conversation especially if they were your elder.

‘Often I would get called Mrs Andy, the first name of my husband, even though he worked in finance and was never present on the visits.

‘If you were familiar with people, sometimes shortened versions of their titles were used as nicknames such as ‘Deaconess’ or ‘Chief’,’ she says.

Hazel explains that pleasantries such as ‘How is your family?’ would then be exchanged. By this time, the kola had usually arrived.

Hazel described how the kola was presented on a plate along with some garden eggs and a spicy peanut butter dip.

‘All the men in the room touched the plate, and then one person prayed over the food, blessing the kola nut. Then it was shared,’ she says.

Hazel says that this happens at virtually all functions, such as birthday parties, weddings, training events and meetings.

She says that women were not expected to eat the kola nut (which was very bitter), but were given a garden egg to eat. Sometimes you were presented with a kola nut to take back to your family to share, to show them where you had been.

‘When visiting a family it was unusual to be given garden eggs, but instead you were given a bottle of talcum powder. The idea was that you make a mark on your skin so that as you went around the village people could see that you had been welcomed.

‘Only after this could any business or discussion about the health of children be discussed. It was deemed rude to rush these pleasantries,’ she says.

Hazel reflects that in her experience, Nigerians can be very frank and direct in their style of speaking, as well as generally talking at a louder volume to Europeans. She says that she had to be careful not to interpret discussion as arguing.

Hazel described sitting as important in the culture she worked within, and those people who were shown respect, especially women, would be offered a seat.

‘At every house I visited I had to sit down, if only to get up and examine the child straight away,’ she says.

Hazel says she found the Nigerians she worked with to be generally more formal in their communication than British people.

‘In Britain,’ she says, ‘we have simplified communication for ease, and appointments and contacts can be made over the phone. Although mobile phones are widely used in Nigeria, Nigerians prefer to communicate face to face. This can take up a lot of time as the main method of transport is motorcycle and roads can often become impassable during the rainy season,’ she adds.

Letter writing

Hazel says that when communicating with those who were deemed to hold a position of responsibility or power, it was important to write a formal letter requesting audience.

In these letters it was vital that you first congratulated the person on their position and their contribution to your project, even if they had had no previous contact with your organisation.

If you had misspelt the person’s name or got their title slightly wrong then they would not accept the letter.

‘At times,’ she says, ‘I found this frustrating as it was a two-hour journey into the town.

‘Once I went to see the head of the Methodist Theological Institute and got his title wrong so had to retype the letter. Printing and using computers was not easy in a community where all electricity comes from generators,’ she says.

Government workers

Hazel says that even if an appointment was made to see an official, the chances were they would not be there or ‘in seat’, so she would have to wait around until they arrived.

‘Sometimes you saw them, sometimes you did not,’ she says.

It was important for these meetings to have as many people present as possible who held some status in the community.

‘As a white person who was married, I held some status. One government official openly said, ‘I am only going to give you audience because the white is here’. This meant that I had to spend time working with the project coordinator waiting in government offices so that the work of the project could progress, rather than always out in the field,’ she explains.

Training events

Hazel says that just as in the UK, healthcare workers want training.

She witnessed several training events whilst she was in Nigeria for a variety of different workers and said the formality of them was one of the main differences to events in the UK.

For all training events, she explains, there was always an opening ceremony and a high table. Individuals were invited to sit on the high table and the kola nut was blessed. There would always be a chairman who would open and close the training.

Participants also expected to get paid some money for attending these events in the form of a brown envelope and officials who came to support the event also expected to get paid.


Hazel says that understanding the cultural differences between the UK and Nigeria enabled her to have more effective communication with those with whom she worked.

If you would like to know any more about her work in Nigeria, contact Hazel at

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