Guilt by Emigration

Ugali and cabbage. Mmmm

For much of the 1980s I simply refused to smile. My country was being wrecked by Thatcherism, the pits were shut down and four million people were thrown on the scrapheap. The least I could do as I caught the bus from Royal Tunbridge Wells to my school (best A-level results for any Brit state school in my year, incidentally) was to scowl. Having fun would have let down my comrades. Made no difference it turns out. And the miners never even thanked me.
I was reminded of my stance by a thread on the excellent Pyjama Samsara blog, where Vasco – an Aussie aid worker – is threatening to adopt a diet of ugali and githeri in sympathy with Kenya’s hungry following a decadent night of cheese and wine…

Last night, I looked at the price tag on the box of camembert. 310 Kenyan shillings, or about USD5. Then I realised with some embarrassment that it was about the same as a day’s wage at the minimum wage in Kenya. But many people earn less. The groundsman at our block of flats only earns 200 shillings per day.

Predictably it has generated a fair few comments. It’s the sort of thing that we expats spend a lot of time discussing – usually during the wine and cheese course at a dinner party. House girls, shamba boys and ayahs are all discussed by people claiming to be liberals but having no awareness of the language they are using.
My own response has been sharpened by a conversation with an aid worker friend. When I expressed mild surprise that a woman living alone needed a live-in servant housekeeper, she pointed out that the housekeeper needed the job to afford her housekeeper.
But possibly the best thing I have read on this sort of topic recently is Michela Wrong in the New Statesman, who has that startling habit as a columnist of making me see familiar questions in a totally new way. Recently she was writing about a young western woman who asked whether she was doing the right thing in visiting Rwanda…

I suspect she was simply giving expression to classic western liberal unease over the gaping north-south divide. Even before flying in, she could imagine what it would feel like to be sitting in her Land Cruiser, a carefully moisturised, well-fed, urban white woman, watching a skinny Rwandan peasant hoeing his plot in the sun. He would probably be sweating, the kids would certainly be snotty, and someone would probably beg for money. And she cringed.
The conversation confirmed an opinion that has crystallised over the past few years: if, as a westerner, you are going to visit Africa, the earlier in your life you do it, the better. By the time you are in your twenties, your head is so stuffed with preconceived opinions, mostly of the ethic ally self-flagellating variety, you can barely see, let alone interpret, what is going on outside you.

To be honest I’ll never get used to people opening gates for me, saluting in car parks and carrying my bags. The amount of money I spend on dinner (not to mention catfood – for my cat) is obscene compared with average salaries. But eating ugali and githeri doesn’t actually change anything other than assuage guilty feelings developed by growing up comfortably middle class. And it would put the nice waiters at Java and Tamarind out of business. Yes, I know that’s a convenient excuse – but just ask the miners that I failed to save.