Let me begin by saying that there nothing I detest more than the idea of race. Really. It is one of the most stupid ideas on earth. If I had never felt discriminated because of my race, I would not take much interest in it. I would say, let us all get on with it. Let me tell you a story – my first encounter with out-and-out racism. I had just finished my undergraduate degree – back in the day. We were required to do an internship as a prerequisite for graduation. I struggled for a while before I found one. The whole search process was humiliating and stressful. My worst experience was at USAID. I was not even allowed to go past the gate. The guards were pretty hostile and refused to take my documents. Dejected, I walked back thinking to myself – if getting an internship is this difficult, then getting a job is going to be an impossibility.
A friend of mine suggested that I try going to an Italian NGO where their friend was working. I did not call them to book an appointment. Somebody will ask – why not just book an appointment? Students leaving university at that time did not have money nor mobile phones, and those days internet was a luxury. It still is. Anyway, I just went and walked in into their offices. I thank the guard at the gate, because he did not try to block me or frustrate my efforts. I walked into the building, then asked the receptionist for directions. There were two organizations based in that building. She asked me to walk to the end of the hall. Somehow, I ended up in the directors office. His door was open, so I just knocked and got in. The white man (Italian) behind the desk looked at me from head to toe. I introduced myself and told him that I was looking for an internship. He sent me to the program manager. I got the internship and they employed me after the internship ended.
That was my first job and this was a catholic church based organization, engaged in humanitarian work – poverty reduction et al. The pay for all the Kenyan staff was pathetic. We all knew it. The white staff were paid huge sums of money and lived in Muthaiga (one of the posh suburbs of Nairobi). My salary was KES 15,000/USD 150 per month. An Italian intern earned KES 300,000/USD 3,000 per month or so, the Kenyan staff said. Nobody really knew what the Italian staff earned- it was top secret. But they drove 4 WD cars and lived in Muthaiga. They went home for lunch, while we ate air burgers for lunch. I lived in a one-roomed house with an toilet (pit latrine) & bathrooms that was shared by maybe, 15 other tenants. After paying rent and transport, I was left with very little or next to nothing really. I was living on the edge of starvation. I was working hard, trying to prove myself. Then, the organization got funding for an educational project.
I started thinking that maybe my salary would be improved. I knew how much money was in the budget, since I was involved in putting it together. I thought I deserved a raise. So, I went to my white boss and told him that I think I should be paid KES 30,000/USD 300. All hell broke loose! It was pandemonium! He raised his voice. He shouted. I do not even remember what he was saying, but that was not the reaction I was expecting. I think he was basically saying that he could not give me the raise. I actually thought he would fire me. I was so worried. He did not fire me. I started thinking – what makes my boss react like that when I ask him for a raise? What makes the white intern get more than me by far, never mind that we the African staff are the ones who have show her the ropes – and actually work more than her? What else could it be other than my skin colour? That incident made me realize that the colour of my skin would always work against me. You do not have to leave Africa to experience racism.
One day a family member came to visit me and found that there was sewage flowing from the toilet and spreading to where our houses.. houses hehehe rooms were situated. My room was adjacent to the toilet. I think the landlord had tried to empty the toilet and somehow the contents spilled out or something. It was one of those toilets where the contents are floating so close to the hole that you dare not look down. You just do your business and leave. My family member was horrified. She told me that I should start looking for a new place to live (one with a toilet inside). I told her I could not afford it. She told me she would try her best to help me pay the rent. I knew she did not have the money either, but I moved out with the hope that I would find a better job. I ended up in a house that was poorly constructed. After a while, water started seeping through the freshly painted walls and they became mouldy. My clothes became mouldy too, because the wall was the closet heheehh! After the shouting incident with my Italian boss, I had started looking for another job seriously. All my evenings were spent applying for jobs. I told everyone I knew that I was looking for a job. After 2 years, or so, I found a much better one at a conservation NGO. This was not without its pitfalls either. I was just talking with my colleague about it the other day and we were ruminating about the fact th the salary of the two top white bosses was more than all the salaries of the 12 Kenyan members of staff put together. Race! Story for another day.
I badly wanted to move from the Italian NGO that was engaged in missionary-related humanitarian work for various reasons. 1. I found the contradictions of using Christianity as a tool for entrenching oppression unbearable. Every morning the white bosses would call for a prayer session – we needed to start the day with Christ! I started boycotting those prayers, because I thought Jesus would have wanted me to live a better life, which could be made possible by a better salary. But my white bosses had sort of placed a cap to what the African staff could earn. Oyunga Pala refers to this kind of phenomenon as the “black ceiling”. No amount of sucking up would melt the hearts of the white bosses. Some of my colleagues tried different strategies – like taking them to their homes to see how the live, or zealously participating in the missionary activities – prayer retreats and the like. Not even speaking English with an Italian accent worked. Not even picking up their mannerisms like Italian hand gesturing. None of that worked! Technically, we were all field niggers. There were a few house niggers, who they used to keep us (the field niggers) in check. Some of the dog treats thrown their way were trips to Italy, and higher salaries, of course. But their salaries and life styles were nowhere near our Italian masters. They also tried to bamboozle us with occasional outings to eat pizza. Now might be a good time to watch Malcom X’s beautiful illustration on the difference between field niggers and house niggers. Watch that before proceeding, because I make reference to that metaphor later. Its just a 5 minute clip :)!
Where was I? Oh the reasons for wanting to leave. Reason no 2 was that I was working in Kibera( an informal urban settlement), and I could not understand this: how come the more NGO’s you have the more poverty you have? Everywhere you look in Kibera, you find an NGO. I think there is an industry of poverty, that thrives from poverty, and that is determined to ensure that poverty is sustained. If there is no poverty, what will all the NGOs and white expats do? Reason no 3 was that I wanted to get into conservation-that is where my interest lies. But back to the Italian NGO – I have just remembered more things that I wanted to tell you. Our Italian masters always spoke in Italian, to lock out the field niggers from the conversation. I resented Italian. I still resent Italian. I equate the language with oppression. They try to colonize the African stuff with Italianism. For instance, in one of their school projects in Kibera, they make the kids perform a play based on Pinocchio, the Italian wooden puppet fictional character. What could be more far removed from the reality of life for these kids. They would not want to perform anything from their respective cultures, because, as we all know, African cultures are barbaric. This Pinocchio business was led by one of the Italian bosses, whose job title was ‘Pedagogist’. There were other teachers in that school of course, but this one had a special job title. I thought every teacher is a pedagogist? Yawn!
One day I was having a conversation with my colleagues. All of us hated our masters. Even those that smiled at them and joked with them hated them. Everyone lamented about how unjust they were. How evil they were. Then, one of us fouled the air by saying the following: But, if it were not for them, you would have no job. We all started talking about other things after that. This how oppression and poverty get entrenched. When people have no option. Because the government has created conditions ripe for exploitation from all sorts of quarters. You cannot even talk about your oppression without being dragged into a guilt trip. Actually, I now realize that this oppression had dehumanised us. One time, we went to visit one of our projects in Huruma (another urban informal settlement) in Nairobi. Our white boss ‘the pedagogist’ gave us a ride in her Toyota Rav. 4 , which she kept referring to as “my car”, and which she no doubt, loved more than us the field niggers. As we were leaving the project, she reversed into a tree and shattered the rear windshield. We performed a great skit of hypocrisy. We told her how sorry we were. We touched the Rav and said uh and ah! It was all hogwash. Later on, we rejoiced! One of my colleagues was even dramatizing the “event” to those that were not there. And we would all laugh! Some even said – it is too bad that it did not hit the body. It should have left a bigger dent! We were the field niggers, who would pray for the breeze to fuel the fire that was burning the master’s house. This situation had reduced us to people who rejoice at the misfortune of others!
I resented my Italian bosses. All of them – from top to bottom. Even the interns were my bosses – because they are white or think they are white. One day, I went to work – I am hard worker, by the way. I strive to give my best. If my former Italian masters get to read this, I doubt that they will say I am lazy person who does not deliver. And that was not even my finest work, because my motivation was somewhere close to zero. I was at work quite early that day. One of the interns walked past me. I do not recall if she said something and I did not respond, or what triggered what happened next. She was ahead of me and took the stairs to her office. As I took the first step of the stairs, she turned around and started yelling. She was sort of jumping up and down and her hair was bouncing up and down. She established a hierarchy. She was at the top of the stairs and I was at the bottom. I was dumbfounded. I cannot even remember all the things she said, but one thing she said stuck to my mind: you may think you are so important, but you are not. You are nothing!
I did not say a word. She finished her rant and walked to her office – in a huff! I walked up the stairs slowly and went to our office. We shared a space with other colleagues – all Africans. They found me there crying on my desk. They asked me what was wrong. Amidst tears, I told them how the intern had yelled at me, without any provocation at all. The mood in the office that day was sombre! I loved our solidarity. When one was wounded, it is like we were all wounded! I was waiting for her to report me to the main boss and for me to be fired. It did not happen. I never talked to her ever after that. She left the organization before I did. The Italian gang had perfected the art of raising their voices at the African staff. It was a strategy at intimidating us and putting us in our place, and it worked. Nobody dared challenge them. We were all scared of losing our jobs. Recall that even getting an internship is difficult enough, so nobody wants to lose their job no matter how pathetic is. I now must point out that it is imperative for people working in NGO’s to seriously consider unionizing! I need to write another blog on this.
When I got the job I mentioned earlier, I left this Italian mafia (that is how some of us used to call them & one of my colleagues referred to the main boss as Mussolini), in the middle of the month. I wrote my resignation letter and gave it to my colleague to give it to Mussolini. I think it was a three line letter. In the letter, I told him to keep my salary – I did not want it. Not because I had a lot of money. No! I just did not want him to say that I had not given a month’s notice. I had to borrow money to survive that month. After he received the letter, he called me incessantly. I refused to pick his calls. He was probably calling to yell at me, and I did not want to give him the satisfaction and neither did I feel like yelling back. We are told that we should say nice things about our employers, because we need their recommendations for other jobs. That you should not burn bridges, etc. While I do understand the thinking behind this, I do not agree with the embedded assumption and logic. What if your employer was horrible? Should you lie and say they were just great? It is this logic that has entrenched massive suffering of people in Africa and other dispossessed regions of the world. It is this logic that tells us that:
1. You should not complain, because you have a job. There are those that do not. Yes, of course. We should all be grateful for the crumbs that are thrown our way. It is this logic that makes child labour possible – at least the children are making money sewing garments and making mobile phones for us.
2. NGO’s are do-gooders. Missionaries are do-gooders. There is a group of Africans who do a show called NGO means Nothing Going On. I am increasingly skeptical of the whole NGO industrial complex. Yes, there are good and bad NGO’s, of course. But it is this logic that NGO’s and missionaries are doing good that entrenches poverty. I hope you have understood about how poverty is created. None of my Italian masters were or are poor. But we the Africans were/are poor. We were impoverished by the NGO. NGOs and missionaries also entrench white supremacy and the idea of white benevolence. That is why kids can get molested by missionaries, but you have people defending the missionaries, because they cannot understand how a white missionary can do such a thing. That is why British soldiers can rape Samburu women, but instead of sympathizing with the victims, the women get ostracized from their community.
I spoke to an elder who told me that when they worked in settler farms during the colonial period in Kenya, they were fed on something they referred to as ‘mathache’. This is what remains of milk after they whip it up and remove all the cream. It is like water, really. The African took care of the cows, milked the cows, then whipped the milk to remove all the cream, and gave everything to the British. Then, the British gave them mathache! They also grew the maize and harvested everything and gave it to the British. Then, the British gave them the rotten maize in the form of flour. This was rationed. Several scholars have pointed out Europeans in Africa believed that an adult African was the equivalent of a 9-year old European. They argued that the brain of the African was underdeveloped. That the African was like a lobotomised European. It was believed that the African did not need much to survive. That is why they gave them little food. Malnutrition was rife! This elder looked me in the eye and told me the following: I joined the Mau Mau in the forest to fight for independence, because I was tired of being a slave on our very own land. I was tired of eating mathache!
The Italian mafia fed me mathache!
And these personal experiences stay with me because I feel it is so,so grossly unjust. I think I am fully convinced that no white person is in Africa is there to help Africans. The ‘Tribe of the West’, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to them, is there to help itself. There are people who have grown extremely wealthy through the industry of poverty. The NGO industry is so powerful. In Kenya, I think the NGO industry is more powerful than the government. It is a parallel government, that seems to be providing services that the government should be providing. As a result, people lose faith in the government and think NGO’s are on their side. But are they? All this happens because the government is weak and we have bad leadership. Is it not because bad governance that the Italian mafia could give me and others mathache!?