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Power, Aid and Impunity: How the Aid Industry Sexually Exploited the World’s Poor

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When reports emerged that senior aid officials in OXFAM, the world’s biggest humanitarian charity, had routinely sexually exploited vulnerable young women in Haiti, it touched off a scandal that has left the Western humanitarian industry reeling. It was merely the tip of the iceberg, as a recent UK House of Commons report attests. Impunity is rife within the UN system and the NGOs associated with it. How to rein it in? By RASNA WARAH  

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Power, Aid and Impunity: How the Aid Industry Sexually Exploited the World’s Poor
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For decades, sun-drenched Haiti, with its beautiful beaches and Third World-type poverty, has attracted a vast array of aid and humanitarian workers who have set up camp in this Caribbean nation ostensibly to lift its people out of their miserable conditions. Because of the huge number of local and international NGOs in the country, Haiti is often described as “The Republic of NGOs”.

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, however, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. Both natural disasters and political unrest, combined with a culture of aid dependency, have contributed to this state of affairs. A Western journalist writing about Haiti has described the country as “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”.

The presence of large numbers of mostly young, naïve and sexually active foreign and local aid workers has also created an environment where vulnerable women and children are being sexually exploited or abused by the very people who are supposed to be helping or protecting them, including United Nations peacekeepers. According to an internal United Nations report obtained by the Associated Press in 2017, at least 134 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. One of the victims said that the soldiers would pass her number along to incoming contingents, who would then call her for sex. One boy claimed that he had had sex with more than 20 Sri Lankan soldiers. Another teenage boy claimed that he had been gang-raped by Uruguayan soldiers who even had the audacity to film the attack on a cellphone. Although 114 of these peacekeepers were sent home after the report came out, none of them was prosecuted or court martialed.

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, however, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. Natural disasters and political unrest, combined with a culture of aid dependency, have contributed to this state of affairs. A Western journalist writing about Haiti has described the country as “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”.

These incidents are not confined to Haiti. A separate investigation published by the Associated Press last year revealed that nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers have been made in other troubled parts of the world. However, this number could be a gross underestimation as the majority of victims of sexual exploitation or abuse do not report their cases.

“Sexual exploitation” is defined by the UN as “an actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”. “Sexual abuse” is defined as “the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions”.

Stories of aid workers, UN peacekeepers and UN employees using their privileged positions to sexually exploit or abuse women and children in poor countries have been in the public domain for a long time but it is only now that the international development community has taken notice and decided to do something about it.

It all started in February this year, when the Times newspaper revealed that staff at Oxfam GB, one of Britain’s most respected charities, had paid local women for sex while carrying out humanitarian work in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country and which led to widespread internal displacement of the quake’s victims. This revelation, at a time when the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, resulted in several similar exposés, the latest being of a senior UN gender advisor – an Indian male called Ravi Karkara – who is currently being investigated for sexually harassing young men in his office.

Stories of aid workers, UN peacekeepers and UN employees using their privileged positions to sexually exploit or abuse women and children in poor countries have been in the public domain for a long time but it is only now that the international development community has taken notice and decided to do something about it.

The Oxfam scandal also set in motion a series of events, including withdrawal of funding to Oxfam by its leading donors, including the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID), and calls for thorough investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by those working in the aid sector globally.

This particular scandal prompted the UK’s House of Commons to carry out further investigations, not just on the conduct of Oxfam staff, but on the conduct of staff working for other charities and aid organisations as well. The House of Commons’ final report, released on 31 July this year, sent shockwaves across the aid sector, and has led to demands for stricter measures to be taken against those who commit sexual crimes against vulnerable populations. The report states that “sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against women and girls in endemic in many developing countries, especially where there is conflict and forced displacement.”

The UK legislators who drafted the report and carried out the investigations also found that the aid industry’s response to sexual misconduct had been “reactive, patchy and sluggish” and that very few organisations actually follow up on reports that have raised the red flag about sexual exploitation or abuse by their employees. For instance, no action was taken after the release of a 2002 assessment by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and the charity Save the Children of the effects of sexual violence on children in conflict areas. That assessment documented 67 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in which 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping missions were implicated; the majority of the victims were aged between 13 and 18.

And, despite being warned three years ago that internally displaced and refugee Syrian women were being sexually exploited by men delivering aid on behalf of the UN, the UN did little to arrest the problem, even though the UN’s Population Fund had conducted a gender assessment last year that showed that Syrian women were being forced to engage in “food-for-sex” arrangements with aid workers. The House of Commons report, titled “”Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, states that “sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, amongst others, is an entrenched feature of the life experience of women and girls in Syria in the eighth year of the conflict there” and that similar cases around world are merely “the tip of the iceberg”.

The UK legislators further found that a 2007 study for the Humanitarian Partnership conducted in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand found that although the beneficiaries of aid knew that sexual exploitation and abuse was going on, the majority said that they would not report these cases because they didn’t want to risk losing the aid. On their part, humanitarian aid workers were reluctant to report their fellow workers for fear of retaliation.

The House of Commons report does not spare any organisation, not even in the much-revered United Nations, for allowing such abuse to continue. “When it comes to investigating sexual exploitation and abuse allegations, the UN’s approach lacks coherence,” it states. “There is no single body taking an overall interest in the outcomes of investigations or driving them towards resolution…”

What the report failed to recognise is that although the UN has a stated “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, few, if any, of the perpetrators face justice – not only because the UN’s internal justice system is flawed but also because international UN staff enjoy immunity from prosecution, which means such cases are not likely to end up in court.

In addition, because the UN is more concerned about protecting its reputation than about bringing justice to victims, those who are perceived to be tainting the organisation (the people who come out and report such cases) are quickly sacrificed. In 2014, for example, Anders Kompass (who has since resigned as the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) was suspended after he sent an internal UN report to French authorities detailing cases of French peacekeepers sexually exploiting internally displaced boys in the Central African Republic. At that time the UN claimed that Kompass had put the victims at risk but it soon became evident that the UN had no intention to act on the report or to make its findings public. Kompass was only reinstated after there was an outcry in the media about the case, but by then he had already made the decision to resign. He said that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.

The House of Commons report does not spare any organisation, not even in the much-revered United Nations, for allowing such abuse to continue…What the report failed to recognise is that although the UN has a stated “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, few, if any, of the perpetrators face justice – not only because the UN’s internal justice system is flawed but also because international UN staff enjoy immunity from prosecution, which means such cases are not likely to end up in court.

This is one of the problems afflicting all aid and humanitarian organisations. Because these organisations survive on donations, the whiff of sexual or other type of scandal could mean the drying up of donor funds, which could affect jobs and projects. So to keep the donor funds flowing, incidents of misconduct are quickly covered up or not investigated. In some cases, the perpetrators are allowed to resign quietly or are transferred to a remote duty station. Meanwhile those who report these cases often find themselves out of a job – the UN, in particular, is notorious for not renewing the contracts of whistleblowers.

However, things are likely to change. Aid and humanitarian organisations that fail to report or address the issue of sexual crimes or misconduct by their employees could find themselves having to close shop, especially if their biggest donors pull out. Since the Haiti scandal, for example, Oxfam has been struggling to survive. Bigger multilateral organisations like the UN, which are funded by member states are, however, unlikely to face such threats because “they are too big to fail”, which is a pity because levels of impunity at the UN are extremely high. Whereas small charities and international NGOs have to be accountable to their donors to survive, the UN can basically get away with all manner of wrongdoing because the UN is accountable only to itself. Few, if any, member states have threatened to pull out of the organisation because of its lack of accountability or because its employees are behaving badly.

Former UN employees who have suffered retaliation as a result of their reporting complain that the UN’s internal justice system is heavily biased in favour of the perpetrator, particularly if he or she is a senior manager. Experiences of UN whistleblowers indicate that those who file a complaint against a senior UN official are not tolerated within the organisation and that the majority of whistleblowers suffer severe retaliation, despite the UN’s whistleblower protection policy. For instance, recently the country director for UNAIDS in Ethiopia, who was a key witness in a sexual harassment and assault investigation involving the UNAIDS deputy director, was suspended from her job in March this year, an action that smacks both of a cover-up and retaliation. As a result, several African women activists called for the resignation of the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé, but he has consistently ignored this call, as has the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Current and former UN employees have reported a flawed grievance system that is stacked against the victims. One woman told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she was raped by a senior UN staff member while working in a remote location but did not obtain justice despite medical evidence and witness testimonies. Because UN staff members cannot take their cases to national courts, (because UN employees enjoy immunity from prosecution), they have to rely on the UN’s internal justice systems, which are deeply flawed and which rarely deliver justice. As I have argued in previous articles, the UN has to overhaul its internal justice system and put in place external independent mechanisms that are more transparent and accountable – and which do not victimise whistleblowers.

Now, finally, such an external independent mechanism might just see the light of day. The House of Commons report makes a recommendation that could radically transform how sexual exploitation and abuse cases are handled within the aid sector: the establishment of “an independent aid ombudsman to provide the right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means”. This recommendation, which will be discussed at an International Safeguarding Conference in October this year, could drastically alter the way aid organisations operate and could be a game changer for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. It is undoubtedly one of the best recommendations to be put on the table of an industry that has become a cesspit of impunity and which is more interested in self-preservation than actually doing good in this world.

However, my fear is that if this ombudsman lacks the power to investigate and prosecute, then it will merely become an entity that collects and documents complaints rather than one that carries out investigations and brings cases to trial, or one that has the authority to force aid organisations to dismiss or penalise employees who are implicated in sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse.

My hope is that this ombudsman will not just address the issues of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, but will also be receptive to receiving cases of other types of abuse within the aid sector, particularly the abuse of power and authority, which allows all manner of wrongdoing, including fraud, corruption, nepotism, and gross mismanagement, to continue.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency

How might one rate a president who has undermined the Constitution, distorted the economy, and failed to address corruption in state institutions?

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A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency
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Article 129 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states: “Executive authority is derived from the people of Kenya and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution…in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their wellbeing and benefit.”

The Executive (the President) must protect the constitution, safeguard our national sovereignty, promote the unity of the nation (including recognising the diversity of the people and communities), and protect human rights. The Executive is bound by national values and principles of governance. Its duties include maintaining good governance, state finance, integrity, transparency, accountability and foreign affairs.

As the CEO of the government, she also has special responsibility for matters assigned to other ministers: a strong economy, peace between communities, foreign affairs and international relations, national security, and international relations. She must also demonstrate respect for the people, and bring honour to the nation, dignity to the office, and promote public confidence in the integrity of the office. Most importantly, she has the responsibility to serve the people, rather than the power to rule them.

The status of the Prime Minister is different. Normally she is the head of the party with the most members in the main legislature. She appoints government ministers from members of the House. At Kenya’s independence, the CEO was designated the Prime Minister (PM). Jomo Kenyatta was PM for a year and then he changed the system to a presidential one, with himself as president – a system that has remained, despite strong support for a parliamentary system at Bomas.

The PM’s support stems partly from the sense that a PM, coming from and accountable to Parliament, is usually far less of a dominant figure, and her power is less centralised in one person, which was one of the objectives of the search for a new constitutional order. Another reversal from a parliamentary to a presidential system – again motivated by individual self-interest – occurred in the closing stages of the Committee of Experts process.

A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.

But a President is not – in theory – some unguided missile. Checks and balances are supposedly more developed in such a system.

So how has our President performed?

The President and the Judiciary

The Judiciary is the third major arm of the State. Our President has little power to make or remove judges. A number of key decisions are made by the Justice Service Commission, an independent body to which the President appoints two lay members. However, the President’s choice has been from those who can take orders from him, not those who can represent the people as the Constitution requires. In defiance of court orders, he has blocked the appointment of many candidates. He has also criticised judges in office, especially in recent years, and often when his own position is challenged (as in elections).

The President and the economy

African governments play a significant role in the nation’s economy. Over the decades, the state has helped to establish a modern economy, increasingly based on the private sector. Governments have established institutions of various kinds to regulate economies at regional and international levels. The Kenyan government has probably retained more of a direct engagement with the economy than many. The state has also affected the economy in financial, monetary and other areas.

A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.

Uhuru Kenyatta is not known for his business skills, nor did he distinguish himself when he was Minister of Finance. Yet he took it upon himself to negotiate deals (largely in secret, as the Chinese prefer) with the Chinese government for skills, equipment, and money. The very costly standard gauge railway (SGR) deal with China is shrouded in secrecy. A court has decided that by-passing the law on public procurement on the excuse of a “government-to-government contract” was illegal. There has been corruption in the purchase of land for the line and stations, little control over the construction of the line, and very little attention given to the position of Mombasa as a county and the country’s major harbour.

The environment and industry

There have been concerns about the environmental impact of many big Chinese infrastructure projects, including high-speed trains and big dams. China is financing a coal-fired power project that is strongly resisted by the local community. Evidence suggests it is not needed in view of Kenya’s renewable energy sources. The SGR has also had a negative impact on Kenya’s wildlife as it passes through the Nairobi National Park despite vigorous opposition from civil society, including litigation. The decisions on the railway’s route were made by the Kenyan government. Local firms have suffered as a result of the government’s preference for Chinese firms for construction and other projects.

The State as entrepreneur

There are around 260 state-owned enterprises (commercial, like the Kenya Ports Authority; infrastructural, like the Rural Electrification Authority; regulatory, like the National Environment Management Authority; social, like the Kenyatta National Hospital, and teaching- and research-based, like universities). The general view of parastatals in Kenya is negative, including because of politicisation of the parastatals and poor corporate governance. Their boards and chief executives are appointed by the politically powerful, including the President himself. Thus, many operational decisions are made by the partisan and the non-expert. The role of the state corporations’ advisory committees is just advisory, with little impact on policy or practice. The structure of financing and financial management is weak – many state corporations are allocated funds through line ministries. They are chronically underfunded.

When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities. The Constitution requires executive authority to be exercised in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their well-being and benefit. It is heartening to now see that many citizens and organisations have raised their objections to presidential appointments on grounds of violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Self-interest lies at the heart of what ought to be public service for the nation.

A genuinely open and competitive process would far more likely produce competent appointees who are respected by the public. But even if the appointees are the best available, the whole process is wrong – it depends far too much on patronage.

Promoting or fighting corruption?

One of the most critical challenges facing the Executive is, unfortunately, corruption. It started with Jomo, followed by Moi and Kibaki, and now has increased beyond imagination. The economy is largely based on partnerships between businesspeople and politicians or public servants.

Various attempts are made through the Constitution to eliminate corruption. Article 73 sets the high standard demanded of public officers, including bringing honour to the nation and dignity to the office. State officers are expected to promote “public confidence in the integrity of the office” and to make decisions that are “not influenced bv nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives or corrupt practices”. Their task is to serve the people, rather than to rule them. But the grip of the Executive on appointments is a major obstacle to dealing with corruption – indeed it is corrupt.

Rarely are business-related acts conducted without significant bribes (to the extent that more foreign businesses, including multinationals, have left Kenya than come in recently). Corruption within state institutions (taxes, customs, contracts, procurements, land appropriations, schools and universities, etc.) has never been so intensive.

When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities.

The police (which is often praised by Uhuru even when it commits brutal acts against innocent citizens), whose mandate is to serve the people, is perhaps the most corrupt institution we have. Of late the President has shown an apparent concern to fight corruption. But dealing more firmly with people within his administration who are suspected of corruption should have been a policy from the beginning. The Executive cannot maintain that “others” are corrupt.

Corruption may no doubt make some Kenyans rich. But it also makes an infinitely larger number of other Kenyans poor. On a broader basis, the President has shown little sympathy for the poor, whose numbers have increased, not decreased, not least because of the current coronavirus pandemic, which led to massive job losses and produced “corona millionaires” through dodgy procurement practices and corruption.

The President and the Constitution

Uhuru has little regard for the Constitution, though he pays lip service to it. If the law does not suit him, he ignores it. Indeed, it seems that the Executive takes the view that if it wants to do something, it will do it regardless of its constitutionality. And it will only decide, if a court objects, whether it will observe the court’s rulings. Think of the takeover of Nairobi County, the creation of the post of Cabinet Administrative Secretary, the importation of the military into the cabinet, the effort to muscle in on the appointment of the Chief Justice, and the tendency to order supposedly independent officers (like the Director of Public Prosecutions) to do things that it wants done.

With such a scorecard, it is hard to make a convincing case for Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.

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The World At A Crossroads: Internationalism or Extinction

The Progressive International remains in formation. The journey toward a new internationalism — one that is powerful enough to stave off extinction — has just begun not only to defeat Donald Trump, but to build a new world that is free from the need to fear him.

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NATIONAL INSECURITY: The state of Kenya’s security apparatus
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November approaches, and the eyes of world turn to the United States. With fires raging in California, protests rising in Wisconsin, and a president inciting violence in Washington, the upcoming election has been hailed by politicians in both the Democratic and Republic parties as the most important in US history. “The character of the country is on the ballot,” they like to say, calling on supporters to turn out and vote.

But far more than national character is at stake in the US election. From climate to Covid-19, the result of this contest will determine fates far beyond the borders of the United States for generations to come. And it is this awesome power — not Donald Trump himself — that defines our present crisis.

November approaches, and the eyes of world turn to the United States. With fires raging in California, protests rising in Wisconsin, and a president inciting violence in Washington, the upcoming election has been hailed by politicians in both the Democratic and Republic parties as the most important in US history

There is a paradox at the heart of the international system. On the one hand, there is broad recognition that the challenges of our century — of climate, capital, and viral pandemic — are planetary in scale. On the other, there is a shrinking set of actors that is empowered to address them. Authoritarian nationalists like Trump, Modi, and Bolsonaro are some. But so is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, expanding an international empire extraction. And so is Bill Gates, shaping public health from his personal bank account.

The stakes of the election, then, not only reflect the differences between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They also reflect the fragility of an international system in which a few men can ruin the world on a whim. And unless we address this underlying imbalance of power — between North and South, the US and its neighbours, the ultra-rich and the rest — we will keep returning to this cliff edge.

In short, we face a simple choice: Internationalism or Extinction. Either we form a common front of workers and peoples that can reclaim the world from this tiny set of oligarchs and dictators. Or they will continue to amass wealth and power, watching the world burn outside their window.

Back in May, the Progressive International launched with the mission to build this common front, calling on progressive forces around the world to join the fight.

There is a paradox at the heart of the international system. On the one hand, there is broad recognition that the challenges of our century — of climate, capital, and viral pandemic — are planetary in scale. On the other, there is a shrinking set of actors that is empowered to address them.

Since then, this front has grown to include unions, parties, and movements that represent millions of people around the world, from the National Alliance of People’s Movements in India to the Congreso de los Pueblos in Colombia to the Landless People’s Movement in Namibia.

Together, the members of the PI have launched international campaigns on issues like debt cancellation in the Global South, developed a policy vision for ‘The World After Covid-19’, and built a wire service for the translation and dissemination of critical perspectives shut out by mainstream media around the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has postponed the plans for a gathering of the Council in Reykjavik, Iceland. But the pandemic has also accelerated crises of democracy, inequality, and environmental breakdown, calling on progressive forces everywhere to act quickly and decisively.

That is why the Progressive International is convening its inaugural Summit this weekend: to map our current crisis, to reclaim our shared future, and to strengthen our planetary front to do so.

The Summit will bring together members of the Council to help set a strategic direction for the year ahead. These include members like Aruna Roy and Vanessa Nakate that took part in May’s launch events. And they include new members like Dr. Cornel West and Natália Bonavides that have come on board since.

In short, we face a simple choice: Internationalism or Extinction. Either we form a common front of workers and peoples that can reclaim the world from this tiny set of oligarchs and dictators

The Summit will convene movements from across the membership to share their struggles and shape the future of the initiative. The questions under review range from ‘Constructing a New International’ to ‘Building Power During Covid-19.’

And the Summit will invite the public to join the conversation. Tomorrow’s sessions include keynote speeches from Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis, and Naomi Klein. And they include panel discussions on topics like the future of democracy in Latin America and the prospects for post-capitalism around the world.

The Progressive International remains in formation. The journey toward a new internationalism — one that is powerful enough to stave off extinction — has just begun. But the Summit marks an important step on that journey — not only to defeat Donald Trump, but to build a new world that is free from the need to fear him.

This article was first published by Progressive international

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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language

Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. This is a death wish that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.

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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language
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We all know Kenyans who, after a short stint in the United States, come back home with a mangled American accent – the kind you know is put on or forced and which makes you cringe because you know how much effort it has taken for the speaker to develop it.

It makes you wonder what it is about America that makes people quickly put on accents that are not theirs. Is it lack of self-esteem, or is it a fervent desire to fit into White America? Do people who adopt American accents believe they have a better chance of being assimilated into American society? Or do they believe that they can only move ahead in their careers if they are better understood by their American audiences? Is changing one’s accent a route to career advancement?

The Sri Lankan journalist Varindra Tarzie Vittachi wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Brown Sahib, in which he describes post-colonial Indian administrators and top-level civil servants who became mere caricatures of the British and Britishness when the colonialists left India. Eager to please their former masters, they went to great lengths to adopt British accents and mannerisms – not realising that: a) they could never pass off as British no matter how hard they tried, and b) by denigrating their own language and culture, they generated even more contempt for themselves among the British, who viewed them as mimicking buffoons who had no dignity or respect for their own culture and identity.

I lived in the United States for five years when I was a student there, but did not come home with an American accent. I think it’s partly because I am multilingual (I’ll explain why this matters later) and also because I don’t like the loud nasal screechy tone of American accents. I find the accent off-putting. It lacks the subtle sensuality of French, the lyricism of Urdu or the sophistication of coastal Kiswahili.

Later on, when I worked in the diverse multicultural environment of the United Nations, I realised that American accents were the minority, and had very little to do with career advancement, so there was no need to put them on. Though race and gender mattered when it came to getting the top management jobs, it was not rare to have a Senegalese with a heavy French-Senegalese accent heading a department or a Russian with very little knowledge of English running an IT section. Most UN staffers are valued not for their knowledge of English, but for their fluency in a variety of languages. So speaking English with an American accent is hardly a plus point.

Kenyans who develop American accents overnight remind me of something Sharmila Sen, an American writer of Indian origin, wrote. In her recently published book, Not Quite Not White, Sen talks about how she used to rehearse speaking with an American accent when her family migrated to America from their native India when she was a child. Her family had moved to Boston from Calcutta and she was afraid that her Indian Bengali accent would be mocked by her classmates. So she spent hours watching American television, learning to speak like the characters in Little House on the Prairie and Dallas (probably not realising that accents vary across America; Texans speak with a specific drawl that is quite distinct from the speech pattern of someone born and raised in New England).

When the twelve-year-old Sen arrived in America with her immigrant parents, she was fluent in three languages: Bengali, Hindi and English. But in her almost all-white school, she pretended that she did not know any Indian language and did not even watch Indian movies, even though she loved them. She was afraid that her classmates might find out that Bengalis eat with their hands and that she would be the laughing stock of the entire school, so she never invited friends home. Her parents, keen to assimilate in their new country, insisted on using forks and knives, even though they had little desire to use them. She says she and her family didn’t want to be associated with “fresh off the boat” people in America, who fail to assimilate into American society, and live cocooned lives in ghettoes. Most importantly, she didn’t want to appear “threatening, unnatural, or ungrateful”.

She also smiled a lot, which she says is common among brown and black people living in America. As an African American man, a fellow doctoral candidate, explained to her, “We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man”.

Going native

Sen says that as she grew older and understood white privilege, she decided to “go native” and not smile too much because she was tired of being the entertainer, the storyteller, the explainer of all things Indian to white audiences. She also did not want her sons and daughter to be viewed as “people of colour” (a designation she resents).

Another writer who decided to go truly native is our very own Ngũgi wa Thiong’o. In Ngũgi’s case, not only did he not adopt an American accent when he went into self-imposed exile in the US, but he decided to abandon the English language altogether in favour of his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ. Perhaps that is why his acceptance speech for an award he received recently was entirely in his native tongue.

Ngũgi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memories. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it. Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. He calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.

Many people of my generation are multilingual because they were encouraged to speak their mother tongue at home. While I was taught in English in school, I learned to speak and understand Hindi and Punjabi at home and picked up Kiswahili on the streets. Later, I picked up a bit of French in high school, and Urdu as well, because my father loved Urdu poetry and ghazals.

All these languages have enriched my life in ways that would not have been possible had I not learned them. Without them, I would have never been able to understand the subtle meanings and nuances embedded in certain Punjabi words. I would not have been able to communicate with my grandmother or watch and enjoy Bollywood films. Nor would I have realised that President Moi’s speeches in English were very different in meaning and tone from his speeches in Kiswahili. I would not have developed an understanding of my own and other people’s cultures or developed empathy and tolerance for other races and ethnic groups had I not been multilingual. Language is the pathway to a culture’s soul.

Sadly, the generations that come after me have abandoned their native tongue in favour of English. Some parents even encourage their children not to speak their mother tongue at home because it might “contaminate” their English accent.

At a public lecture he gave at the University of Nairobi a few years ago, Ngũgi derided Kenyan parents for discouraging their children from speaking their mother tongues, a phenomenon that has led to what he called a “linguistic famine” in African households. This would never happen in countries such as Germany or France, where German and French children learn their own language before they learn English. Nor would it happen in China, India or Brazil, all of which are emerging economies. (I have yet to meet a Chinese person who feels ashamed about not knowing English.)

Even in neighbouring Tanzania and Somalia, people become fluent in Kiswahili and Somali, respectively, before they learn other languages. A few years ago, I participated in a two-day local government meeting in Dar es Salaam which was conducted in just in one language – Kiswahili. Like many Kenyans who visit Tanzania, I became painfully aware of the fact that my mastery of this beautiful language was woefully inadequate. My only (lame) excuse for this is that in my school days, Kiswahili was not a mandatory subject.

Knowledge of many languages promotes inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and is essential in a globalising world. If Kenyans are to be successful citizens of the world, they must learn their own and other people’s languages. And we should stop putting on accents just to impress others. Putting on an accent that is not natural is not just silly and painful to watch; it is also a sign that those who feel compelled to change their accents have a large amount of self-loathing going on, which is just plain sad.

The late Wangari Maathai said that “culture is coded wisdom”, and must be preserved. Language is one of the vehicles through which that culture is transmitted. We must preserve our languages for the sake of present and future generations.

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