Seeing the ‘other’

by Simon Collings

At the end of last week I spent two days at a leadership retreat with nine of my colleagues: six Kenyans, two Tanzanians and a Ugandan. The two trainers, who I had brought in to run the two days, were Kenyan. One of them is someone I’ve worked with before. The retreat was at Kenya Commercial Bank Leadership Centre in Karen, just outside Nairobi. Other training events were happening at the same time, mostly KCB staff. I was the only white person among more than a hundred people staying in the venue.

I’ve been in this situation many times before and I don’t give it a lot of thought. I see myself as an individual, not as a ‘white person’. I do not feel myself to be ‘other’. But several things that happened during the two days surprised me and left me feeling excluded, even stereotyped.

It started with little things. People would stop mid-sentence to explain for my benefit the significance of a cultural reference. It was well-intentioned, an attempt to include me. But drawing attention to my difference underlined my outsider status. I don’t feel like an outsider. I have been working in Kenya for years, spend almost a quarter of my time here, and have lived in Nairobi for short periods.

In the bar after the first day three of us were sitting waiting for colleagues to join us. A waiter appeared and asked my Kenyan colleagues what they wanted to drink. Twice the waiter glanced uncertainly in my direction. Having been given the two orders he started to move away. ‘Hey there’s another person sitting here,’ said one of my co-workers, coming to my rescue. The waiter came round the table and finally asked me what I wanted.

On the second day one of the trainers told us a story about cultural differences. As a Kenyan he shares what he has with others – it’s cultural. But as a young man, on an Outward Bound course in the Bahamas, he remembers being shocked to see a fellow walker, a white man, take out a chocolate bar and eat it all by himself. He described the white walker as one of my ‘kinsmen’. The story was about the way different cultures have different values. But again it was assumed I was part of that ‘other’.

Later our team-building exercises involved throwing objects to each other in a pattern. First we practised with a soft ball made from old socks, then a roll of masking tape was introduced, then an onion. As the number of objects increased it got more complex. Then the trainer threw in an egg. It was passed around and as it landed in my hands it broke, spilling its slimy contents over my fingers and causing disruption to the proceedings. This was a major topic of discussion in the de-brief afterwards.

‘Does this prove,’ one of my colleagues asked, ‘that Wazungus aren’t as good as Africans at catching eggs?’ Wazungu is the collective noun for ‘white people’ in Swahili and has a pejorative tone, at least to my ears. I was surprised in this setting to find myself being described as a Muzungu. I said: ‘On a sample of one, statistically that would be a dangerous conclusion.’ Several people laughed and agreed and the discussion moved on.

But the real bombshell came at the very end of the afternoon. One of the Kenyans said that some people in the office felt that when I come over from London I always go out to lunch with the expatriate staff to find out what’s going on. There is suspicion about the expatriate interns who come from time to time and a fear they are going to ‘take people’s jobs.’ Some people, it seems, believe they are there to spy on behalf of ‘London’. She had hesitated to say this, and prefaced her remarks by saying she hoped I wouldn’t be offended. I wasn’t. I was glad she had said all this. But it was a staggering revelation which 24 hours later I was still wrestling with.

The reality is I go out to lunch with anyone who will go to lunch with me. Usually I have lunch with the Regional Manager who is Kenyan and we use the time to deal with business. Sometimes I invite people to have lunch with me and my offer doesn’t get taken up. I see my colleagues as individuals. I don’t think about ‘them’ and ‘us’. For me there is only ‘us’. We have a policy of always trying to hire local candidates if we can – because they have knowledge and skills expats don’t have. Sometimes we can’t find what we need at a price we can afford and we hire an expat with local experience. The London office has got smaller and the Africa team has grown hugely. Almost all of the staff in Africa are Africans, while the London team is multicultural.

Discovering that under the surface of our daily interactions some of my colleagues see me as ‘them’ shocks me. ‘What does it say about the insecurity of those people that they feel that?’ one of my Kenyan colleagues comments. In the car coming back into Nairobi I discuss it with two of my co-workers who were at the workshop. ‘How can people say this about me?’ ‘People see what they want to see,’ one of them says.

However much as individuals we try to reach out across the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, and regardless of how many friendships we develop with people of different backgrounds, it seems that ‘them’ and ‘us’ is always there. During the leadership course we talked about humans being both psychological and sociological creatures. Our identity in part is defined by other people.

The day after the leadership event I watched a film by Penny Woolcock called Exodus (Soda, 2007). I knew Penny years ago when she was just starting out in film. Her latest documentary One Mile Away, about gang rivalry in the UK, has attracted a lot of media attention recently. Exodus takes place in a fictional Britain where the socially ‘undesirable’ – asylum seekers, black people, paedophiles, the mentally ill – have been put into a concentration camp. The more able are allowed out during the day and employed in menial jobs. It’s not very far from what the British settler regime in Kenya did to Kenyans in the first half of the last century. In the film these outcasts are the ‘Israelites’ who are eventually freed from their captivity by a Moses. But the film ends with no promised land, only a lot of bloodshed and grief on both sides of the social divide. Its final message is grim.

As a bonus on the DVD there is a short piece about the making of the film. This describes how a huge cast of extras had to be assembled and many of the speaking roles were filled by local non-professionals. People from a wide array of backgrounds were brought together. They had fun, made new friends, learned things about themselves in a way which was hugely positive for Margate where the film was made. While the message of the film itself is bleak, the process of making it was anything but. ‘Forget politics,’ one of the extras says. ‘This is it.’

So maybe there is hope