21 March 2012

Zimbabwe: Serving Others, What Went Wrong?


Many years ago, some strangers arrived after dark and they stood at the entrance of the village compound. Mbuya VaMandirowesa said, "Who is it?" The people said, "Tavirirwawo.

The sun has gone down on us before we reached our destination. You do not know us. We are strangers." Mbuya quickly went over to shake their hands and welcomed them.

A man and his wife came into the kitchen hut. The man sat on the bench and the woman sat with us on the floor. "What is your totem? Where did you come from? Where are you going?" Mbuya asked them.

The man said he belonged to Soko Mbire of the Monkey totem and his wife was a Nyati, of the Buffalo totem. They were coming from behind the Hwedza mountains and were on their way to Nyashanu in Buhera.

Mbuya clapped her hands with joy and said, "The blood of one kinsman can smell the other! Ropa rinonhuhwa chokwadi. I am of the Soko totem so I am your aunt. You are the son of my brother. As for your wife, she has the same totem as my daughter-in-law. She is a Nyati of the Makoni people who came from Rusape.

"You are among family. Mauya! You are welcome. This is your home." Mbuya asked my mother to come and welcome her new kinswoman. My mother cooked for the visitors.

Within a short time our new relatives were eating sadza with smoked dried meat, laughing and sharing stories from across the Mbire mountains where they came from.

Just before sunrise, when there was enough light to see the path, our new relatives crouched in the courtyard to thank Mbuya and my mother for looking after them for the night. Mbuya gave them a supply of roasted and salted groundnuts. Our relatives continued on their long journey to Buhera.

It did not matter that we never saw them again, they were still bound to us by the blood of our totems and by our centuries old cultural values.

Traditionally, Zimbabweans are warm and generous towards each other. But, as we become more and more urbanised, we are changing.

All that Shona way of hospitality, generosity and care seems to be disappearing with the move to the city and changes in the economy. Something has happened to negatively change people's attitude towards others. It is much worse in the hospitals and other public service places.

I was talking to my friend Mercy about bad customer service generally in Zimbabwe. She said, "If you think Zimbabweans are bad at customer service, go to South Africa and you will know the meaning of not just bad, but even hostile service." She reminded me that Zimbabweans are renowned for providing good service in hotels, restaurants and in companies all over South Africa.

"Zimbabwean waiters in South Africa are comparable to Americans. They speak good English. The problem is, they often do not get good tips," she said.

In America, customer service is at its best. Once at the door of a restaurant, the waiter just comes short of hugging you. They are so happy to see you.

Throughout the process of ordering a meal and eating it, the waiter really waits on you. You get huge servings and once you order one soft drink, they will keep coming to pour more coke into your glass until you are ready to burst. Soft drinks are on an "all you can drink" basis.

Every few minutes the waiter will come and say, "How are we doing here? Is there anything I can do for you? Is the meal to your liking?" But at the end of the meal, you will pay fifteen percent gratuity.

If you do not pay, they want to know if the service or the meal was not satisfactory. In America, you pay for the automatic smile. You also pay a huge tip because waiters do not get paid much for their long hours of standing, serving and smiling.

Back here in Zimbabwe customer service is a different story. During the transition from the village to the city, somewhere along the road, we lost the warmth and generosity of serving.

Sometimes we even imitate the way white colonialists used to treat us forgetting that their unjustified use of power was based on the assumption of racial superiority, wealth and the control of land.

The other day I dropped into see a director at a mining company's offices. On arrival, the director's personal assistant was engaged. She was providing spiritual counselling to someone on the phone.

For a good five minutes, she took no notice of my presence. "This situation my sister, really needs God. Speak also to the pastor's wife. With more prayer, faith and love, everything will be fine." There was a long pause while she listened to the other person.

The assistant was one of those good looking mature women with the confidence of holding the director's office for many years, possibly in both government and the private sector. I sat down on the sofa not too far from her desk. She took one quick glance at me and kept on with her phone counselling. "I will call you back this afternoon and we can pray together and ask God to intervene, kuti Mwari vapindire panyaya iyi." She put the phone down and I smiled to greet her. The frown on her face froze my smile immediately. "Yes?" she said, looking at me from top to bottom, then from bottom to top again.

It was a rather unpleasant interaction of eyes only and no words. What was causing her hostility? Maybe my presence had interrupted the phone counselling session too soon.

I shuffled in my seat uncomfortably and said I wanted to see the director briefly. "The last time I met him was at another business function and he said I should drop in some time.

So I happened to be passing by and I thought I should do a quick hello," I said, speaking in Shona. On hindsight, that might have been my downfall. Shona is not exactly a business language with power.

"What do you want to talk to him about?" she asked coldly. I said it was something to do with consultancy in my role as a specialist in development and corporate social responsibility. The assistant's frown deepened.

"You need to make an appointment to see the director. If everyone just drops in to see him because they met him somewhere, we would not be doing any work around here. Right now his program is full for the next two weeks. Then he is overseas for another two weeks. Call us in a month to make an appointment."

She turned away from me, picked up the phone and dialled a number. "Hello Mai Guzha. Sorry I am returning your call so late. How are you?" the assistant smiled into the phone. She had already finished with me.

Throughout the day, the incident with the director's assistant kept on playing itself out in my head. I had looked professional enough.

Perhaps I ought to have used English, and then she might have treated me better. Was Shona not a professional enough language to use in the business circles? I had no answer.

This was not an isolated incident. I had been given a similar but less unfriendly treatment in other departments before. I kept on asking myself what went wrong in our role to serve others. Why do those in the serving profession treat other people so poorly?

The reason may very well lie in the fact that if you are not being paid enough or you are being treated badly by your boss, you project your anger and frustration towards those you are supposed to offer smiles and sympathy.

It is not easy to be totally overworked and smile all day to strangers. Being nice and kind all the time is hard work.

The blame also falls on the manner we use when we communicate with those who serve. Some of us treat waiters, grown men with families and children, with little respect. People use fingers to call them, the same demeaning way used by white Rhodesians.

It is not surprising that some waiters prefer to serve a European or any other foreign visitor first before serving local Zimbabweans. They also complain that unlike expatriates, Zimbabweans hardly ever give a tips.

As Zimbabwe's economy continues to grow, how we communicate becomes a key criterion for business and social services. The future requires the generosity and warmth we used to have when strangers arrived at our doorstep.

A combination of those traditional cultural traits of the past and professional skill is not just good business sense, itsika dzedu, simple basic respect.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and is a consultant and director of The Simukai Development Project.

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