Opinion and Analysis
How I integrated and became Kenyan
Posted Wednesday, June 20 2012 at 19:19
My last article described how problematic it is to integrate different cultures, and thinking about the subject led me to reflect on the integration challenges I faced when I arrived in Kenya in 1977 to become general manager of the local subsidiary of a British computer multinational. My experience of Africa at the time was limited to a lively six-week stint in Ghana (where I had been sent to stabilise an unruly situation), and I had no idea what was to confront me.
Mind you, my background is far from parochial. My parents are Jewish Romanian, I was born in Haifa and brought up in London, and I had married an American. At university I first got to know and appreciate English people from the north of the country, and three of my closest friends there were an Indian, a Pakistani and a Nigerian.
But when I moved in what I found bewildered me. First was the extraordinary steepness of Kenya’s organisational pyramids, with yawning power gaps between levels. I quickly became aware of a mutually reinforcing triple heritage of influences that defined the prevailing culture: beyond the African respect for elders and the autocratic style of most Asian businesspeople, I saw evidence everywhere of the British colonial parent-child model of leadership.
The overwhelming managerial assumption was that one was leading a bunch of simple-minded and for the most part untrustworthy fellows (other than secretaries, there weren’t too many women in the workplace then), many of whom had to be allocated mere tasks rather than larger responsibilities.
Finally, I was struck by the grim Victorian seriousness of the Kenyan workplace. Even in the hottest of weather, formal suits had to be worn, and along with them an accompanying serious expression. Jokes were frowned upon, as this was seen to trivialise and distract from work. But innocent friendly smiling? Evidence of weakness, I learned. The importance of the work required, according to this archaic school of thought, a permanently sober demeanour.
My much older British expatriate bosses expected me to comply with such attitudes and behaviours. But to me they were quite alien. The culture of post Second World War London in which I was educated, and that of the British computer industry where I had worked for ten years, were dramatically different from what I now had to cope with in Kenya. It was as though time had stood still here, oblivious of the former colonial power’s Swinging Sixties domestic experience and of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s call to exploit” the white heat of technology”.
So how did I react to my dilemma? Did I overcome my deep reservations and go along with what everyone — not least my own staff — expected of me, to be the stern bwana mkubwa (the Big Man)? No! My instincts led me to defy the expectations of both those above and below me, and what guided me then – as it does now – is my Holy Grail of “I’m OK, You’re OK”. And along with this mind-set came two complementary frameworks, the first of which was the striving for win-win outcomes, rather than assuming win-lose to be more or less inevitable.
The second was an expectation of horizontal rather than vertical relationships. I like to start by assuming that, as a mature and positive adult myself, I will be dealing with others of the same species.
We all know that the more you treat someone as a naughty child, the more they will conform to your image of them. After all, if there’s no way of proving that you’re anything other than a lazy and irresponsible character, why bother trying? (It’s only recently that my mother has almost come to terms with the fact that her son, a grandfather for some years, is a mature fellow.)
In those last years of the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta, not only did I treat the people around me with respect, I encouraged a light atmosphere around the office. It was my natural style but also strongly felt that, among knowledge workers, at least, it actually promotes rather than dilutes productivity.
Sure, some people let me down. But don’t get me wrong. If I ever needed to express my disapproval of what someone had done or not done, I would not hold back from doing so. It’s just that rather than this being my default behaviour, I held it in reserve. I was told that some of my staff — particularly new ones, who were unaccustomed to my variety of styles, sometimes unduly jovial, sometimes unduly demanding — found me puzzling. I took it as a compliment.
So here I am, 35 years later, firmly embedded in what is now my Kenya. I am a Kenyan, and I am married to one. I am still a missionary for those flatter pyramids, for mutual respect and for win-win. I expect to enjoy myself as I work, and to enjoy working with those around me. Yet the shadow of the stern triple heritage still hangs over Kenya, and there’s plenty more proselytising to be done.