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.


  1. You’re right of course. You eating ugali and sukuma will not help the problem. As you not hiring staff. That doesn’t help either. In my opinion (for what it’s worth) is that all employment is good. It brings money to families and enables them to buy food and live. You can’t feel guilty about it.

  2. Eating ugali (which I hate) and githeri (which I like) may not solve the problem. But I’m not completely helpless in this. I may not be able to change everything, but I think I can make significant changes in the lives of a few.

    We have a friend who cooks for us twice a week. She’s currently a student, and was unable to support herself and pay for her college fees. We figured if we go out for an expat dinner, we would pay at least $20. So we pay her the equivalent (1,200 shillings) for the meal she cooks us. Plus her githeri is great. To us, it’s a only half of the $40 per diem we get per day. Great deal for us! To her, she can now continue her studies to become an accountant. Plus, there is inevitably too much food (she can’t get used to cooking for two), that we feed all the guards and the groundsman too.

    I suppose I’m wondering if I should use more of my per diem in this way. Instead of buying cheese and wine.

  3. Toaf, no idea about pingbacks. And as for the rest of you, this is one of those themes that I swore I’d never post on because I wouldn’t be able to help myself and would fall out with people. As I did in the first house I lived in here, with a White Kenyan whose father had knocked down a local girl and not stopped (see my ten reasons…). I got kicked out after I offered my views on that one

  4. One point that shouldn’t be ignored. Many of the liberals who feel this guilt also do not beleive in the free market. When you hire people to work, they are getting something they want and they are not begging to get it. My house staff (two nannies, two guards and a gardener) would all like better jobs, but they are happier to have what they have than nothing at all. This is trade, not aid, to use an old slogan.
    To feel guilt over helping others is, well, a bit odd.

    As for eating ugali, I hate the stuff! Ever seen a Kenyan resturant overseas? When my wife wants to remember her mom’s cooking, she makes it and I make some rice… Githeri is a different matter, as is irio, those I enjoy.

  5. Dear Rob, I was so surprised and happy to see that you have a cat. Please, please tell us about it and post a photo. I love cats and want to start a cat blog that I can visit for some cheer on the days when the going gets tough at my watchblogs and I feel disappointed in human beings. I promise to lift all of your catposts and photos and stick them in my cat blog with credit to you and link to this site 🙂 Cheers, Ingrid.

    PS Incase you don’t want to do any catblogging at From The Frontline, I would be most grateful to receive your catphotos and captions by email. Please note, my current email address ceases Nov 28 as I am switching my ISP to BT broadband.

  6. Great Rob, looking forward to it, thanks. Cloughie is a good name for a boy cat. I wonder if it’s something to do with football or he likes playing ball. My cat never fails to chase swirly-multi-coloured-flecked ping pong balls but totally ignores white ones. I think cats can’t see colours. Must look into it. Here’s another thing, my cat cannot see herself in a mirror which makes me think they see the world in a much different way than we do.

    At the moment it’s 2.20 Wed afternoon, weather grey, cool and overcast, sea’s calm, awaiting a BT engineer to arrive and connect my laptop to a fancy new wire free mini hub sitting next to me. My landline was switched to BT broadband Oct 6 and here I am on Oct 15, being charged for a service that I’m not receiving. In all it’s been a 20-hour nightmare dealing with them over the phone from here to India, right from the start of trying to order and having to use their dial-up service in the interim. I had forgotten how slow pages and photos are to load. Can’t wait to try broadband. I wonder how many visitors to our sites are still on dial-up. None I hope.

  7. Cloughie has a strong personality, is never afraid to air his views and has an astute tactical brain. He’s never been quite the same since Peter Taylor died, mind you

  8. “Astute tactical brain” is what it says it is. “Peter Taylor” was Cloughie’s sidekick for many years at Nottingham Forest. The two fell out when Taylor went to derby and bought John Robertson without letting Cloughie know. They never spoke again. Taylor died without them making their peace. Cloughie doesn’t often let his emotions show, but I know he still hurts.

  9. Thanks Rob, I realise that “astute tactical brain” is what it says but the phrase was new to me. Now I know that having an “astute tactical brain” is useful in a competitive field. Please forgive the throwaway comment of mine which now, on rereading, appears abrupt. I wrote and posted it quickly while chuckling at the thought of cats becoming like their owners in much the same way as couples or a dog and its owner, after a long time together, end up sharing similarities and looks. I should have thought to expand on the comment, intended as a compliment to you and your cat’s “astute tactical brain”, or at least ended the comment with a smiley 🙂 Also, thanks to your comment, I read up on Cloughie and Peter Taylor and found they’d enjoyed many years of great times and laughs together. Trouble was, it seems to me, business got mixed with personal. Years ago, a shocking experience with a very dear American friend of mine taught me a golden rule in life that wherever one is in the world, business is business, never confuse or mix business with personal. Give Cloughie a cuddle and tell him that worse things happen at sea 🙂

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