We had a hilarious time with a South African friend the other day, when she revealed that all her compatriots commonly kiss on the lips to greet one another. Other South Africans around the lunch table confirmed it. Whilst this ritual is generally reserved for close friends and family, on further investigation, she even admitted to kissing her husband’s boss on the lips, regularly! Now this had the lip shy Brits rolling on the floor!
It has taken decades for the British to move on from a nod of the head, to a formal handshake and on to a bit of ‘European’ style air kissing today. When I miss aim and kiss my seven or four year old daughters on the lips, they say ‘Yuck Mum, you kissed me on the lips!!’ in utter disgust. If someone planted a smacker on my lips, I would be stunned (and obviously flattered), but also bemused. For us Brits, it’s just not done.
This revelation leads me to consider that while living in Kenya you will never be subjected to sitting next to a necking couple at a park bench or bus stop as is common in the UK. It might not strike you immediately, but soon it becomes evident that ‘public displays of affection’ (PDAs) are just not done here. The atmosphere is overall restrained and very above board (think: 1930s). All kissing takes place behind closed doors. Whilst men will hold hands for long minutes (even walk along the road hand in hand – and they are definitely not gay couples), it’s not usual to see a man and woman doing the same. Mr W has found it a helpful trick to grab onto the hand of a traffic policeman as he is trying to fine or caution you. If you refuse to let go, smile and maintain eye contact for long enough, the poor man will be intimidated into letting you off as you will have convinced him you are his friend (in theory). It’s a kind of ‘killing with kindness’ technique. In the Masai culture, there is no kissing on the lips allowed between husband and wife.
Other quirky things you will notice, is that it is polite to accept money by offering the right hand forward, with the left hand resting on the right arm, in full view to show that the transaction is an honest one. A handshake when hands are not clean is replaced by grasping one another slightly further up the arm, in a kind of forearm shake (rather than spitting on your palm and wiping it on your trousers Brit style).
One of my best Swahili words is ‘pole’ (pronounced ‘pole-ay’). It means sorry, but specifically it is said to you when you have done something to yourself. It’s like saying; ‘sorry you have been so clumsy/had some bad luck/tripped over – though it’s not my fault - I’m just sorry for you’. Whereas, ‘samahani’ is the ‘sorry’ word that you use when accepting some degree of blame – i.e. ‘I trod on your toe, sorry!’ There is no Swahili translation for the ‘sorry’ that an English person might quickly say when someone has bumped into them (i.e. sorry I was in your way)?!?
Don’t expect to hear an awful lot of pleases and thank you’s as is the British way. It’s not part of the culture to say these words and that is just a fact. I’m sure people are bemused by each expat sentence being peppered by niceties and worse, those who expect to hear please and thank you at every turn might be gravely disappointed.
I once received a very amusing email entitled ‘A Kenyan’s Guide to Kenya – vol. 1’, and would like to copy a paste a bit of it – but am sorry to say I never found out who wrote it so can’t credit the wit to anyone by name. Some of it made me laugh out loud:
I've often been terribly disappointed by the tourist guidebooks written about Kenya. Most of the time they tell you stuff you already know, like "you can go on safari and see some lions." That's probably why you wanted to come here in the first place, so that's not helpful. Other times they give you all manner of useless information. For example: what's the point of telling you how to ask for directions in Kiswahili if you're not going to understand the answer? (Sometimes they seem to be written by a malicious Kenyan who hates tourists. One time I was lying on the beach and was accosted by an earnest American who said, "Jambo. Nyinyi muna kula viazi?" First of all, no Kenyan says "Jambo."Secondly, I was lying on the beach, I was alone and I definitely wasn't eating potatoes.)
Here's what you should know: When we want you to pass us something, say the salt, we'll point with our mouths. Example: We'll catch your eye then say, "Nani." Then we'll use our mouths to point at the desired object. This is achieved by a slight upward nod followed by an abrupt thrusting out of the lower lip, which is pointed in the object's general direction. There's no explanation for this. ("Nani" can be roughly translated as, oh I don't know, "Whats-your-face," “You”, or "Thingie." We're unfailingly polite.)
We claim to speak English and Kiswahili, which technically means that we should be able to communicate with the English-speaking world and Tanzania. What we really mean is that if you're not Kenyan you won't understand a damn word we say or why we say it. Example: "Sasa" in Kiswahili means "now." We use it as a greeting. Correct usage: "Sasa?" "Ah, fit." It confuses us that Tanzanians don't understand this. We also, just as randomly, might greet you by saying, "Otherwise" Common response: "Uh-uh." There is no explanation for this.
So, cultural differences can prove to present quite a social minefield. I suppose that the only solution is to keep a very open mind, especially if you receive a sudden and unexpected kiss on the lips!!