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Why Kenya's leaders need lessons on etiquette and good manners

 Parliament Buildings. [File, Standard]

When President William Ruto indicated at a Kenya Kwanza parliamentary group meeting in Naivasha last week that the leaders needed lessons on etiquette, many giggled.

They probably thought that was a rather funny proposition, more so coming from the Head of State.

Perhaps those who thought Ruto was cracking a joke may have forgotten that the president had a chance to observe some of his new charges during the luncheon at State House, Nairobi after his inauguration.

But the President was serious, stating that some leaders could be a source of embarrassment to the government as they were way off the mark when it came to simple table manners.

He may as well have been speaking of the decades-long erosion of etiquette in public spaces, which set about after defeating of Kanu in 2002.

"We are going to have a session to show you a bit of etiquette," he said.

"At times we get embarrassed when senior people don't even know how to hold a spoon or a fork. Some people take things for granted."

While proper etiquette covers almost every sphere of one's dealings with others, good table manners, as the president pointed out, are the most observed.

Experts in social ethics say they can make or break a deal.

Rural backgrounds

In his book, Social Etiquette and Manners, Mutea Rukwaru says table manners say a lot about a person's character.

"Not knowing dining skills says a lot about a person. And not knowing it can be more damaging than you think, especially for people in high positions," he writes.

"If you haven't learnt to eat correctly, what else did you miss learning on the way to growing into the position you are?"

With a big percentage of MPs making it to the august House for the first time, they will be incorporated in various committees where they will interact with high profile individuals including diplomats.

Others come from very rural backgrounds with a few, if any, enforceable rules of etiquette.

Some of them are expected to serve in high profile positions in government and even accompany the head of state to foreign trips requiring high protocol levels.

The image they will portray, even in the simple matter of enjoying a meal will either reflect well on the country or bring ridicule to the government, hence Ruto's concerns.

Presidential level

The Kenya School of Government trains government officials on proper etiquette while the Foreign Service Academy (soon to be a semi-autonomous body), a unit within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trains officers who are to be posted to foreign missions.

Established in 2007, FSA has been training local diplomats as well as those from the region, officers from ministries and government departments on etiquette.

"We train these officers on small things that people take for granted including seating arrangements, dress code and dining mannerisms," says Festus Wangwe, FSA acting deputy director-general.

"Some of the new MCAs are former hawkers who have had no regard for certain formalities and now they have to dine with the high and mighty."

Wangwe says things get more complicated on a presidential level, citing the well-coordinated arrangements regarding the arrival and seating of visiting heads of states at the presidential inauguration ceremony.

"These leaders came and sat according to seniority. They have ranks and when President Ruto goes to the African Union meeting, he will be among the youngest ranked on the continent and will be ushered in at the tail end," says Wangwe.

He adds that failure to observe such etiquette can have serious consequences including a head of State protesting by letter or failing to honour future invites.

Personal branding

Jane Waikenda, who used to handle etiquette training for senior officials at the ministry, says there are times when a meal is more than just food but also personal branding that includes what a person wears at a luncheon or State dinner.

She says State dinners involving visiting heads of state or where Kenya's president is a guest in a foreign country require invited guests to observe the highest level of decorum.

She recalls an incident in 2003 when the late Mwai Kibaki made his maiden tour of the United States as president. There were clear guidelines on the dress code that all guests to the White House dinner had to observe.

However, Waikenda says that some Kenyan officials did not take the matter seriously and left Nairobi without the requisite garb. They were turned away from the dinner.

"How you navigate the dining table, from the cutlery to holding a wine glass tells a lot about your personality," she says.

"There are some organisations that, after they recruit you will have one of their officials take you out for lunch just to assess how well you observe dining etiquette without you knowing that you are under observation."

SK Macharia, founder and chair of Royal Media Services found out how serious dining etiquettes are when he was enrolled at Kahuhia Teachers Training College in Murang'a in 1960.

Most of the teachers were white and it was almost mandatory for the students to accompany a teacher to his house to be taught table manners such how to use cutlery, napkin and how to eat the different food courses from soup to dessert, states the book, A Profile of Kenyan Entrepreneurs.

"The college took these etiquette lessons very seriously and even if one was brilliant academically, they could still fail the entire course if a teacher wrote a bad report on the etiquette part of it," says the book by Wanjiru Waithaka and Evans Majeni that profiles leading Kenyan businesspersons.

But there is more to etiquette than just dining.

The general comportment of a government official carries much weight especially when the said official is visiting a foreign land or attending to high level engagements.

The picture of Mike Sonko, then Nairobi senator, together with top government officials bidding farewell to a Chinese delegation comes to mind.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, deputy president William Ruto and other dignitaries were dressed in immaculate suits. Sonko, on the other hand, stood out like a sore thumb because he was not well dressed.

Robert Burale, a motivational speaker and fashion critic says leadership involves representing people, perhaps in their thousands or millions.

The social behaviour one exhibits, he adds, is taken to be a representation of all these people.

"It is all about the right impressions. You will never get a second chance to give first impressions," he says.

"If you display unwelcome manners internationally, people will say, 'look at these Kenyans' even if it was only one official with the problem. Even the way you dress will inform the way people talk to you. You are addressed by the way you are dressed."

Bull of Auckland

Sometimes, the behaviour of some government officials have caused diplomatic spats with host countries resulting in embarrassing scenes, especially to the Head of State.

A case in point is the November 1995 tiff between the government of New Zealand and Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Back then, President Moi was leading a delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting when a scuffle was reported between Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott and a housekeeper in an Auckland hotel.

It is said that the housekeeper went into the room for turndown services and found a nude Biwott with the shocked lady letting out a scream. From here, details remain scanty but the local authorities were all over the place hunting down Biwott with accusations of indecency.

It took the quick action of Foreign Affairs ministry and other officials who arranged for an emergency visa and a ticket to fly Biwott to Singapore, the next stop for the Kenyan delegation.

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