Cross-Cultural Communication

It is a late Saturday afternoon and I am sitting on the balcony of my room in the Speke Hotel, reading a book and watching some of the Kampala world go by.

Last week I was telling you about how Kampala is very much expectant, waiting to host the Queen; for in November she will be opening in the city the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – or, as all the billboards call it, CHOGM.

The last time I sat here, last April it must have been, there was the noise of a crowd and a whiff of tear gas. People were running down the road, away from a demonstration outside Parliament that the police had broken up – a protest about the proposed cutting down of a sizable section of Mabira Forest for an extension of a sugar plantation.

The time before, in the run-up to the 2006 Elections, I got a first sighting of the Black Mamba army guys riding past on the back of a speeding truck. They had just invaded the High Court, where the trial of the Presidential contender, Dr Besigye, was going on.

But Kampala is a much quieter, calmer place now. Though some might still be muttering, most Ugandans seem to have accepted the status quo and are getting on with their lives.

And the book I am reading? Fittingly, it is a fairly low-key commentary on Ugandan culture – written to help visitors, especially expatriates, deepen their understanding and avoid making some embarrassing mistakes. ‘Tips on Uganda Culture’ it is called.

The writer, Shirley Cathy Byakutaaga, has obviously spent time in the West, so she has a good idea of things Europeans could well find different, puzzling and even amusing, about the ways of Ugandans.

But I am wondering how much of what she is saying is distinctively Ugandan or more generally applicable to Bantu culture.

Like when she says a European might well think a Ugandan isn’t being polite when he is asking for something and doesn’t say ‘please’. I am remembering the story Kamau, a Kenyan friend, told me about the first time he ordered a drink in an English pub at the time when he was starting his Master’s programme at Manchester University.

Kamau went up to the bar and said to the young barmaid: ‘Two pints of Fosters!’

‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’ she asked.

‘Forgotten what? I don’t know what you mean….’

‘Forgotten to say Please!’

Now Kamau was a university lecturer and he must have been in his late-thirties – and certainly he was much older than the barmaid. Embarrassing.

I started this piece by saying that Kampala is expectant. Well, one of Shirley Byakutaaga’s pieces of advice to a man is Never ask a woman when her baby is due – even though the size of her stomach shows you that she is indeed very much expectant. The conclusion could be, Shirley says, that you are the father of the baby.

Even a woman, unless she is a very close friend, doesn’t usually ask such a question. It seems there is a superstition that if you know the expected birth date then you could cast a spell on the mother so that she delivers a maimed baby – or the pregnancy disappears.

Is this a peculiarly Ugandan thing – or does it also apply in Kenya?

One other example of a crossed transaction is, I reckon, quite universal. In Uganda culture, Shirley says, a man should never compliment a man on the looks of his wife – by saying something like, ‘You have a very beautiful wife!’ He might well think you actually fancy his wife.

But, no, I wouldn’t try that on in Manchester – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo: Speke Hotel