Barking Kenyans, begging Tanzanians: When is politeness not good for you?

Saturday January 3 2015


By Jenerali Ulimwengu

You cannot beat the Season of Good Cheer for laughs, so let’s laugh at ourselves a little.

Kenyans are too often on our case regarding the use of the word “naomba,” literally meaning “I beg.” For us in Tanzania it simply means, “May I?”, or “Please,” or “Would/could you please?” A polite way of requesting a service, even when you are paying for it.

Our northern neighbours find it hilarious because they are used to a more direct, almost military, approach in such exchanges. “Leta bia hapa!” they will bark at a waiter, (Bring a beer here!) or “Kuja hapa!” (Come here!).

A story is told in Nairobi of a Tanzanian minister on an official visit to Kenya who goes to a restaurant and “begs” for food. The waiter has seen him on TV and recognised him as a minister in Julius Nyerere’s Cabinet. Taken aback by the minister’s request, the waiter goes to his manager to report this strange phenomenon.

Whereupon the manager, believing the minister must have been mugged on the streets of Nairobbery, tells the waiter to just go ahead and serve the poor guy.

All is okay till the minister, done with his lunch, asks for the bill. “Sir,” replies the waiter, “You have no bill; when you begged me for food I reported your request to the manager, and he ordered me to serve you for free. You may go.”


Of course, Kenyans get us all wrong most of the time. Tanzanians with heavy Kiswahili influences, such as the ones who hail from, or have lived for long in coastal areas or in “Swahilised” towns upcountry, are likely to be much softer in their conversation than their countrymen from more “tribal” areas.

The guy from Tanga has much more to do with a Mombasa man than with a Musoma fellow citizen. A Kuria from Kenya is just as forthright as his brother this side of the border.

Yet it is true that we have been socialised into a certain civility — real or feigned — by our history and collective experience as a country. The dominant culture in our politics and economics is Swahili and the tone is measured.

It is impolite to shout, and when you have a representation to make, you had better be circumspect about it lest you appear rude.

Sometimes I feel I’m going to die from frustration when I hear people speaking in a political meeting: “Ndugu chairman, I was thinking that maybe I should beg you to allow me to say that perhaps it is about time I said something!”

Is this the product of a monolithic politics imposed for too long, wherein meekness and subservience were seen as virtues, and any sign of dissent was considered treasonable?

Or is it just that we have been blessed with a gentle nature, and politeness is a badge we should all wear with pride?

I have no problem with politeness or decorum, and I love it when words are put together with style and uttered with poise. I’ve never heard them, but I think that is the speech of angels, though I wouldn’t know the language they speak.

The problem with such civility, though, comes up when you have to make yourself absolutely clear, so that there can be no ambiguity about what you intended to say.

Fumbling words, or engaging in malapropism, can be very costly. Like the man who went to his doctor for castration and discovered only after the operation that what he actually meant was circumcision.

It’s not surprising, either, that when President Jakaya Kikwete said a few days ago that he had “begged” his minister to step aside and “allow us” to appoint someone else, some people were arguing whether she had resigned or had been sacked. Such is the cost of ambiguity.

And our Kenyan brothers and sisters may have a point there, like we saw with the restaurant episode, narrated above.

Still, they must desist from unnecessary exaggeration. It’s not true that the rapist who asked his victim to allow him to rape her was Tanzanian.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]