The end of the year is upon us, and it is the season for celebrations, including the good old-fashioned office party. They are merry and delightful occasions, those office parties, where the cleaner dances with the MD, and the messenger and the driver tell off the chief accountant for his meanness.
Such occasions also provide many hilarious moments. Some colleagues hoard bottles of beer and soda under their seats. Others stuff chunks of chicken and scoops of pilau into plastic bags, to “help tell the story to those who stayed at home”. (What are we going to do now with ban on plastic bags?).
As for the drinks under the seats, they are invariably left there, forgotten, as we consume more and more of the above-board offerings that make us wake up the next day with “pangs of alcoholic remorse,” as one of our famous attorneys-general put it.
What has, however, become iconic of the meals at such receptions, in these days of buffet services, is the heaped “Mount Kenya” plate of victuals with which many of us leave the service points. I love food and I relish the taste of it. The sight of a well-laid-out table of edibles excites me, and I sublimely enjoy the “tucking in” and chewing away in the company of good friends, as the lighthearted banter flows.
But, surely, is it necessary to overload your plate with two pieces of every type of red meat, poultry and fish, double servings of ugali, brown kuon, irio, muthokoi and wali as well as two rolls of chapati and every variety of vegetable, all immersed in heavy gravies, and topped with two slices of watermelon and two rounds of pineapple? Is that the best way to express your love and appreciation of food?
Even the mere recitation of the litany of our greed leaves us breathless. Imagine trying to shove it all down one’s tummy. It would be a case of either definite overeating or of food waste, with a lot of the “loaded” food left uneaten. Granted that the catering institutions go out of their way to indulge us, we should not let our eyes be inordinately bigger than our stomachs.
Maybe I should apologise here before I proceed, for two reasons. First, in our anglophone (or what Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls “Afrosaxon”) culture, we have a convention of not talking expansively about food and eating.
Indeed, as Mr Woodhead one of my linguistics teachers in Dar es Salaam, once observed, the English (and Anglophones) tend to regard food and eating as just a body function.
We do it and leave it at that. We do not normally expatiate about it, the way the francophones do, for example.
Second, I know that practically each one of us is challenged in one way or another when it comes to table manners.
So, talking about the subject can easily sound like the common sniggering or even heckling with which many of us, especially from underprivileged backgrounds (walalahoi), are teased and tormented by the rich and comfortable (walalahai).
Since I make no secret of my roots in the former group, I can assert with conviction that my mention of food and eating decency has nothing to do with social class snobbery.
Rather, I broach the sensitive topic because of its centrality to our social harmony and comfort, regardless of where we come from or what we do.
I believe that table manners are simply a set of conventions, like the traffic highway code, that help us to negotiate our social interactions whenever we meet in a meal situation.
On the road, for example, you know that you have to keep left, avoid over-speeding and stop at intersections to avoid inconveniencing and endangering yourself and other road users. Similarly, when at table, you avoid laying your hands on top of the table, or sticking out your elbows into the sides of those next to you. You should also know how to use the china, glassware and cutlery laid out on the table.
If you are given a big piece of meat, do not stick it on your fork and start tearing at it with your teeth. It might fly off the fork and land in the lap or even in the face of your neighbour, to his or her great inconvenience and your profound embarrassment.
Why do you not hold your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right and cut off the chunk of meat small pieces that fit conveniently into your mouth? These are the conventions and you are expected to know them and observe them.
But that is just the problem. Many of us simply do not know these conventions. In our old and conventional times, the first thing that we were taught when we went to secondary school was how to lay or set a table, and how to use the tableware and utensils in the dining hall.
But then came that miracle called uhuru, and many babies were thrown out with the bath water. Among the babies thrown out were good manners, including table manners, and even good Standard English speech. They were all lumped together as “outdated imperial, colonial impositions” with no place in the new genuinely African society.
Soon afterwards, our Marxist-Leninist-Maoist teachers told us that all those details of politeness, etiquette and what the French call savoir-faire (knowing what to do) were bourgeois, decadent and reactionary” diversions from true revolution. The stage was set for the rise of a barbaric new generation that neither knew nor cared much about the small wheels of decency that move the whole mechanism of society.
But all is not lost. Some of my former KU students have noticed the lacuna and are starting etiquette training centres, where they imaginatively and entertainingly initiate us into useful savoir-faire, including table manners. I will, inshallah, tell you more about the project one of these days.
Meanwhile, enjoy the end-of-year party.