By RASNA WARAH, December 27 2009
THE GENERAL CONSENSUS is that unlike Tanzanians, Kenyans tend to be a brash, crude and arrogant lot who don’t care much for niceties or politeness.
It is a stereotype that has stuck, even though, in my opinion, most ordinary Kenyans are generally quite polite and have a high tolerance for bad behaviour, which means they don’t lash out or fight back when treated badly. The other stereotype is that Kenyans are always in a hurry and will never lose an opportunity to make a quick buck.
This go-getting attitude has often been confused with greed. But after visiting Tanzania, I am beginning to wonder if it is not precisely this attitude that has kept the Kenyan economy going even in the worst of times. And nowhere is this more evident than in the hospitality industry.
Like Kenya, Tanzania is blessed with physical beauty, ample wildlife and sandy beaches. In terms of tourism, it is Kenya’s closest rival after South Africa. But in terms of human resources, particularly in the hospitality and services industries, it lags way behind Kenya.
My own experience during a short visit to Dar es Salaam was enough to convince me that Kenyan hotels need not fear competition from Tanzania because they manage to do one critical thing right — they train their staff to respond to a clients’ needs.
In Dar es Salaam, I could barely get the attention of the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel, nor could I expect things that I take for granted in Kenyan hotels, such as room service. At first I thought it was because I did not use the magic word “Naomba” often enough. But repeated use of the word did not yield results.
On its Website, the hotel claimed to be four-star, but the only four-star thing about it was the clean, crispy bed sheets and the bathtub. The owner clearly had big ambitions, but failed on the small details.
For instance, there was no bedside lamp for reading in the room and the TV had only one international channel. In the dining area, there were too few waiters, and it was almost impossible to get their attention.
Quite often it was difficult to predict exactly when dinner would be served as it varied from any time between 7 and 9pm. This was extremely frustrating for the clients with small children.
The décor and design of the hotel also left a lot to be desired. The swimming pool area, for instance, was stripped of all trees, which made swimming unpleasant as the water heated up to almost 30 degrees in the blazing sun.
MY SWEDISH COLLEAGUES WHO were staying in the same hotel were even more frustrated. A few of them almost missed their ferry to Zanzibar because the taxi-driver booked the day before arrived an hour later than expected.
Do I sound like an arrogant self-righteous Kenyan? Maybe. But I highlight these shortcomings, not because I want to feel smug about Kenya, but because I think Tanzania is going to lose a lot of tourism revenue if it continues like this.
We can’t entirely blame Tanzanians for the state of their hospitality industry. Until the early 1990s, the country operated like most socialist states with a heavily subsidised and centralised systems that left little room for risk-taking and innovation. This meant that a civil service mentality pervaded all industries.
When the economy was liberalised, it was not accompanied by human resources development. People were not trained to compete in the free market system. For instance, Tanzania has no training college for hotel staff. There is no Utalii College, as in Kenya, that churns out chefs, waiters, receptionists or housekeepers.
Moreover, the Tanzanian economy is heavily donor-dependant, which has created its own problems. I was told, for instance, that the Tanzanian participants in the conference I was attending expected to receive a daily allowance simply for being there. This would be unheard of in Kenya, especially if the conference is among peers belonging to the same profession.
Donor dependence has created a citizenry that looks to foreigners to solve their problems. It has also stifled entrepreneurship and hindered economic development.
Perhaps in the spirit of the East African Community (and the future political federation), Kenya could offer Tanzania a helping hand through training of people working within the hospitality industry or via exchange programmes between hotels in both countries.
In return, Tanzanians could instil in Kenyans a sense of solidarity or Utu. God knows, Kenya could use a dose of kindness and co-operation right now.