Wolverines Abroad: Cultural etiquette, learning from a fowl
What is appropriate etiquette when invited to a local home for dinner in a foreign country? This question was the source of much anxiety during my recent trip to Kenya, as part of the C.K. Prahalad Fellowship at the Ross School of Business. Though I had previously lived in Kenya before returning to business school, this was a question to which I never fully grasped the answer. Growing up in the United States, it was not typically expected that you should bring a gift when visiting a friend. If invited to dinner, you may be asked to bring a dish or provide desert, though it is by no means expected. However, U.S. culture is unique in this regard compared to much of the world.
I knew that in Kenyan culture it is inappropriate to visit a friend’s home empty-handed. However, what is an appropriate gift? A piece of art? Dessert? A quilt? During previous visits to the homes of Kenyan friends, I never seemed to find the perfect gift. I had tried cookies, fruit, local handcrafts, you name it. I could always tell from reactions I had missed the mark.
This time, I was determined to get it right. During one weekend of my fellowship experience, I planned to visit the home of my good friend Robinson and his family. I met Robinson in 2009 during my first trip to Kenya. We were working together in a community-based program to develop clean water solutions for the arid lands of Kenya. We became instant friends and have remained in contact ever since. I remember when his children were born, who are now two and six years old. At my wedding, he flew from Kenya to Oklahoma to stand as one of my groomsmen.
When the opportunity arose to return to Kenya, I was excited for the opportunity to apply what I was learning at the Business School to a real-world problem. Through the C.K. Prahalad Fellowship, I was going to be visiting hospitals in Kenya and examining the cause of infant mortality. I was also exploring business solutions to this global problem, particularly through the lens of a low-cost ventilator that had been developed by an Ann Arbor startup. Outside of my work, I was looking forward to catching up with my good friend Robinson and family.
When the day came to visit Robinson’s home, I wanted to ensure I got it right. Kenyans are incredibly welcoming people and would never look down on a foreigner for not bringing a gift to dinner. However, it was important to me that I would not be seen as a foreigner, especially to my close friend. I spoke with other Kenyans, trying to decipher what would be an appropriate gift. I was told that food is a good gift to bring, but I had tried that before and failed.
After much deliberation, I decided to take a risk. Knowing many Kenyans raise animals as a source of livelihood, I discovered the perfect gift. But what live animal could I bring? It would be difficult to find a sheep or goat in Nairobi and a chicken was too cheap of a present. I drove outside the town until I came to a small village where I had previously seen animals along the road. There I parked the car and described my predicament to the owner of a small vegetable stand. She immediately began describing a large bird she had seen for the first time earlier that day. After perusing photos on her cell phone, I realized she was referring to a turkey. I followed her directions into the village until I found it. Unfortunately, I only had 4,000 Kenyan Shillings in my pocket and that particular turkey was worth far more.
I continued my search deeper into the village until I found a more reasonably-sized fowl. Though he wanted 6,000 Kenya Shillings for it, I was able to negotiate down to 4,000. Then came the challenge of transporting the turkey to my friend’s home. I loaded the turkey into the passenger seat and returned to Nairobi.
After cleaning up the seat of my friend’s car, I then needed to find a taxi. Fortunately, the first driver I found was quite familiar with the transport of animals and did not question it. After a 2-hour car ride due to heavy traffic, I finally arrived at my friend’s house near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Questions raced through my mind. How would the turkey be received? Would I be seen as a crazy white man or a thoughtful friend? After stepping out of the car, turkey in hand, the look on Robinson’s face was priceless. This time, I finally nailed it.
My hope is everyone at the University of Michigan will take advantage of the amazing global opportunities offered to experience and learn from another culture. When you do, take a lesson from the turkey. Make sure to study the culture ahead of time. Talk to locals to understand the subtler cultural cues. When you finally take the dive, you will never regret it.