Manners and Manure

The inhabitants of Kenya are known for being a warm and welcoming people. After spending a few weeks in their company, I can but confirm this fact. Kenyans are not only thoughtful hosts, they also show a politeness and manners often incompatible with our North-American placid, planning and always-in-a-rush habits. Indeed, what Canadian city dweller wouldn’t be suspicious, sometimes scornful, of a handshake from a perfect stranger met on his way? And who would actually make – or even accept – an unexpected invitation to have a cup of tea in the middle of an already busy work day? Yet these things are common in this country that welcomes me so generously.

According to good manners here, you should greet anyone you meet with a good handshake and a cordial “Habari”, often followed by a series of other greetings. Whether it’s a collegue, a new acquaintance or someone that will remain a stranger doesn’t matter : it’s greeting before talking. And so, when our driver stops the vehicule to ask someone passing by directions to a certain farm, a hand enters by Ephraim’s opened window and must meet the hand of every single passenger, accompanied by many “habari”, before the person, bent over the window, will give us the desired answer. Even one with a wet or dirty hand cannot escape from this human contact : in those cases, he must present his arm, flexing the carpal joint, and the other person can then grap and shake his forearm, just up the wrist.

Kenyans also have the habit of saying “sorry” when some undesirable thing happens to you. Therefore, every time I fall on a slippery slope, every time I drop my pen in the mud and every time I hit my head – which happens every single day because of the acrobatics I perform to get inside the pens – the witnesses will immediately say “sorry”, even though these troubles are entirely my fault.

Generosity is yet another aspect of the Kenyan culture. When we are visiting farms, we frequently leave with a bunch of bananas, papayas, sugur canes, eggs, corn, or avocados as big as a head. We tell the farmers that they don’t have to give us anything, that their participation in our study is more than enough, but they are happy to share the result of their laboured soil, in addition to the time they already spend with us. Besides, I doubt Francis, our cook, will ever be able to make enough banana bread to empty our stocks.

Sharing is an essential value here. Even those who haven’t got much will give you all they can possibly offer if you are in need. This weekend for example, we had planned on going to visit the students from UPEI staying in Meru (they are also travelling for some projects with the Farmers Helping Farmers organization). A misunderstanding kept us from staying at Jennifer’s house (she is an active member of a wowen’s group for community development and used to be their chairperson), since she thought we were coming on the next week and had therefore no more rooms available for Saturday night. Dismayed by this misunderstanding, she wanted us to sleep in her own room rather than to have us staying in a hotel a bit further away. We simply couldn’t accept such an offer, so she almost forced us to at least come at her house for dinner, and she nicely received us even though she already had a very busy evening.

The Kenyans’ generosity is only equalled by the local hospitality. We often receive invitation to sit down and have a cup of tea. Our daily schedule is quite busy and we tend to decline those offers, but the farmers insist, some of them even adding that it is not very polite to refuse. Therefore, except if we really are in a hurry – which seldom happens, with the African beat we are starting to catch – we let ourselves be guided towards chairs, wooden benches or even inside the house, in a small living room, to sit down and to take the time to enjoy our hosts’ company, a much appreciated token of gratitude. They sometimes serve us food and, when it’s the case, it’s usually in enormous quantities. Of course, it is considered rude not to finish your plate…

Farmers wish so much to show good manners as hosts that they insist on having us sitting on a piece of decorated material instead of directly on a log and they tell us not to remove our boots when we come inside their house. Can’t they see that we already are covered in dirt and other filthy things? They don’t seem to care : they wouldn’t accept to see a bit of dust from a log or from the floor going on their guests’ precious scrubs. In front of those very – too? – thoughtful hosts, we smile, but we let them understand that we would actually be disrespectful to such good manners by covering the place with manure.


Geneviève C. L.