After 2 years of living here I am mostly an expert on the culture and therefore would like to bestow some of my wisdom…ok I can not even type that without smirking as I am pretty much a Mzungu idiot. But still, an idiot who has come a long way in understanding some norms here over the last few years. I still have so much to learn as is evidenced by numerous blunders (and a new “secret” handshake I learned at a funeral this week…ok, it is not secret but I still felt pretty cool learning it).
But I can offer some cultural tidbits and advice for any readers who may mosey over here to our little island. My knowledge is limited for sure but there are just some things I will never understand or be able to wrap my Western brain around and this post is dedicated to some of those differences that make me giggle. Some of these were highlighted, no blarringly apparent, during a meeting I attended as a “guest of honor” last week (why ‘honor’ you ask? yep, me too. no idea. I was wondering the same when asked to go).
So here are some tips that you can feel free to absorb and act on sasa hivi (right now) if you are yearning to be more like a Waswahili. And really, who does not need a bit more Waswahili in their lives?
-Please feel free (in fact obligated) to answer your cell phone whenever it rings. No matter where you are or what you are doing.
-When you answer said phone there is no suggested volume for speaking- the louder the better especially if you are…say….just for the sake of example in a meeting or in class.
-When you need to talk to someone but have no money on your phone account simply “beep” them (or call and hang up after one ring) 16 times or until said person calls you back using their account.
-Feel free to tell children outrageous lies if it makes them behave or do what you want. For example, “you will be eaten by a fish if you swim in the water tank.” Or if a child is showing off their English speaking skills but they are also very shy and therefore covering her mouth with her mtandio (head scarf) tell her to stop right now or all her teeth will fall out!
-Please feel free to say anything you think about someone’s character or appearance directly without worrying about hurting their feelings. For example, you can ask me on the street if I have been eating lots of muhogo (cassava) recently since I am looking a bit pudgy!! No worries about embarrassing me. Or my favorite……A teacher (during the meeting) told each child to stand up and then in front of everyone (parents, other kids, etc) described them. For one child he said “huyu ni mtoto mbaya na ananikera sana” (this one is a bad child, he bothers me a lot). Seriously!
-when you arrive late (and let’s be honest you WILL arrive late) please feel no guilt or shame at all. Instead take off your shoes and loudly proclaim your entrance by formally greeting everyone in the vicinity. To my Western sensibilities this is wildly rude but here I am actually seeing and finally understanding that to NOT greet everyone adequately is a far greater sin than showing up late or interrupting.
-anything bad happen? It means it was written and/or it is “bahati mbaya” (bad luck). No really…. anything. No one working during the operating hours at the post office. Pole, bahati mbaya. “no we did not finish your copies even though you dropped them off with plenty of time” …bahati mbaya. Pole, I broke your _______(insert borrowd item)… bahati mbaya. Sorry, I was late…..I LEFT my house late….yep, still bahati mbaya.
-make noise. lots of it. at any hour.
-Everything is communal. Need shoes to walk to the duka?…take the first ones you see. Need a bike for a quick trip to your field?….grab your neighbors. Karibu sana to anything y’all!
-and my favorite. Over share. Go on, no worries about embarrasment, making someone uncomfortable, or TMI. Please feel free. Sick? Got diarrhea? inform everyone. And if you find out someone else has it please feel free to share this info with …say…EVERYONE you talk to. Like the whole neighborhood. Go for it!
Can I just say I dearly love the people here. I might never fully understand the “why’s” but I love them. And we laugh often.