My first impression of Africa was a bit scary.
That may have been because the expatriate businessman I stayed with when I arrived on the continent was quite well off.
That might sound strange, but hopefully by the end of this piece you will see what I mean.
When I was in my early 20s, I won a Rotary International Scholarship.
A lot of people are familiar with the awards as a source of funds for students from Africa, Asia and South America to study in the west.
Far fewer people know the public service organisation also dishes out money for students from Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia to study in the developing world.
It’s a great programme designed to give students from wealthier countries firsthand experiences in places where life isn’t quite so easy.
I wish more westerners would take advantage of it… but I’m not too upset there wasn’t more competition when I applied.
When I flew to Nairobi from the United States in 1979 the businessman met me at the airport in his capacity as the local Rotary rep.
He was friendly enough but he was also quite uptight. By the time we reached the car he’d told me about the dangers of pick-pockets, scam artists, dishonest black market money changers and armed robbers.
I spent a couple of days living in luxury behind security walls at his suburban mansion, but it wasn’t very comfortable.
There was tension between the family and staff and they all seemed reluctant to leave the compound.
I doubt that was the experience Rotary had in mind.
Then I moved into a cheap lodge near the University of Nairobi and the atmosphere got a whole lot better.
There were other students, travellers and a handful of local workers staying at the place.
No one had lots to spend but it was a friendly, happy place and I soon had several friends.
Most were Kenyans and, not far into my stay, one of them invited me to his village 200 miles west of the capital.
His tribe didn’t have much pull in national politics and there didn’t seem to be any government money flowing into the area.
As a matter of fact, when I sat down to dinner it was obvious there was not a great deal to eat.
But here’s the thing… I felt totally welcome and it was obvious the entire family took real pleasure in sharing what they had.
It was totally different from my introduction to the continent when I was encouraged to look out for myself and protect my belongings at all times.
What I’m saying here is that if we want to live happy lives, I think we need to do a bit more than just accumulate money.
That often leads to a defensive approach to life that requires security guards and insurance policies.
Having a bit less money but having time for others and sharing with them, on the other hand, usually results in good friends and plenty of sharing in return.
I get the impression that’s the way Africa is meant to be.