In business, it pays to know the cultural nuances of the natives of your operational countries. By culture I mean the behavioural codes that society relies on to support the well being of its people as they go about raising their families, building their careers, running businesses and settling disputes. The codes can either be supported by legislation or not, but if you really want to get your finger on the pulse it is useful to read the popular literature of that society.
For example, if you want to understand the British, read Shakespeare, and likewise read Tolstoy if you want to figure out the Russians. Closer to home if you want to know how Kenyan’s think then read Ngugi wa Thiongo. However, the stories that I find particularly insightful about East Africans are the Tales of Abunuwasi that everyone who’s been through the local curriculum is forced to read.
The collection is based on a combination of the Swahili and Arabic storytelling and features a clever fellow who makes his way through life using his wits and trickery, and the rudimentary lessons are about the avoidance of greed and pride. Drill down a little deeper and you’ll find a set of values that are in conflict with the Western principles that we have adopted through religion and laws.
While the stories celebrate the heroes sleight of hand and his ability to extract valuables from his victims, foreigners would consider him a cheat, a fraud and generally a socially undesirable character. He goes about winning favour among his friend because he can outwit the rich and the greedy, and onlookers applaud his cunning ability to elude the consequences of his actions.
Map the underlying values to modern politics and you begin to understand why communities cast their votes for shady politicians who spend their entire waking day emptying public coffers. Politicians who retire without fat bank accounts are considered fools because they wasted the opportunity to amass wealth while in office.
In the private sector, businesses and consultants thrive in an environment where firms pay big bucks to double check that they have received the full value of their purchases or to ensure that their people are doing what they are paid to do. Media monitoring is one such service and close to a billion shillings is spent to ensure that TV and radio stations flight ads as booked and paid for.
Years ago, when we went around the country evaluating the size of the outdoor advertising industry we found several billboards that were erected behind great big Mugumo trees and sold to unsuspecting clients who wouldn’t know that only the birds could appreciate the ads.
So the ‘Abunuwasi Phenomenon’ governs expectations across the board. In research, when clients don’t like the findings they accuse the agency of trying to trick them as they invoke this cultural factor that indicates that integrity can and will be sold to the highest bidder. In political elections if a section of the voters don’t like the results they apply the ‘Abunuwasi Phenomenon’ and accuse the organisation that runs the process of working for the enemies of development.
From this perspective, no one is beyond reproach and it is in everyones right to be suspicious of your own motives.