Cultural values strengthen friendships. Photo by Alama Creative

Loneliness in Africa: Does Africa experience loneliness differently?

4 min read

The other day, one of my friends told me I was 'distant'. Immediately, my defences were up. I thought to myself, this can't be true — I may be selective when making friends, but definitely not distant. My friend followed this up by telling me that loneliness was inevitable for someone like me, with such a ‘Western’ attitude toward making friends. I live in Kenya, and my fast-paced, tech-savvy lifestyle of working remotely didn't seem to mesh well with my surrounding community. In my friend's mind, choosing a few, genuine friendships meant I was doomed for eternal loneliness. I began wondering where my own continent falls in the debate on loneliness. Do people in Africa, like in the West, experience the same types of loneliness?


Before turning to Google, I imagined two plausible hypotheses: 1) people across various African countries do experience loneliness, but to a lesser extent than in the West because of our more communal lifestyles; or 2) people in Africa experience just as much loneliness but would never admit it because of how taboo it is in our society to discuss. And so I began my research, and the results were quite shocking.


African countries do suffer from loneliness, in fact South Africa has been ranked 8th loneliest country in the world and Kenya, my own country, has been ranked 9th! But what I found next was even more surprising; according to data by the Statistic Brain Research Institute, the majority of the African population does not actually acknowledge that loneliness exists.


And why is that?


Well, most people cite our ‘African community values’ as the main reason for why they believe other Africans could never experience loneliness. I must admit, this greatly disappointed me, knowing that no one is immune to loneliness and that pretending loneliness can’t possibly exist in Africa is probably what landed my country so high up on the list in the first place!


I began asking my friends their own thoughts on loneliness, and the answers were more divided than expected. There was unanimous agreement that we are all susceptible to loneliness and that loneliness is increasingly more common, especially in urban African areas and amongst the aging population. However, there were diverging perspectives on to what extent loneliness truly was it an African problem.


In my experience, growing up in Africa conditions us to avoid talking about our feelings, therefore no one ever has the opportunity to admit to feeling lonely. Secondly, despite your parents not wanting you to have too many friends, especially friends who get you into trouble, it’s always assumed that that you have them anyway. For example, though my parents were very strict about my friendships, every so often they would want to catch up on who was in my life to try to assess if I should continue a friendship with that person. Since friendships are so expected, African parents are rarely on the lookout for signs of loneliness in their children.


We all aspire to have face-to-face connections. Photo by Thought Catalog
We all aspire to have face-to-face connections. Photo by Thought Catalog

As I continued to discuss loneliness in Africa with my friends, we all felt proud that our shared cultural practices are intended to prevent loneliness, despite how little we are actually allowed to talk about it. We also recognized that the new generations of Africans, millennials and Generation Zs, are starting to change these more communal trends in Africa, most likely due to their non-stop use of technology and their inclinations to mirror Western culture.


These younger generations tend to engage less in traditional cultural practices that often encourage human connection. In many ways, technology creates a divide between the youth and the elderly, who already so often cannot relate. There is also an increased pressure on youth to fit in, by using the most recent technology which only leads to more and more people missing out on real life face-to-face connections and experiences.


My take away from all this is that, as the world changes, we each have to find a balance that’s right for ourselves. Do we want to fit in so much that we lose out on the benefits of true connections and face-to-face friendships that the older generations still very much value? Or can we take something from the older generations’ experiences and possibly find a middle ground where a combination of technology and real human connection can prevent loneliness but still provide a modern tech-inclusive way of existing in this world? One thing I now know, is that Africans too experience loneliness, and if we continue to ignore this fact, we might just end up at the top of that list.


Trusila, Cross-Cultural Friend


Trusila Muroka
Administrative Assistant at Panion, Anthropologist, writer
Live, Learn, Love, Laugh.