Being Black Working In a White Male-dominated Aid Industry

The final piece in the African Women in Development series by our very own AF writer Rosebell Kagumire who has spearheaded this series. The AF pan-African feminist family is grateful to Rosebell for initiating these much needed reflections and the discussions that will ensue. We hope these reflections encourage more African women to speak up and those in the leadership echelons of development organizations to begin to reflect on aligning externally held values with how they enact them individually and collectively.  

Read the intro to the series here. You can also find the first reflection by Bethel Tsegaye here and the second one by Lydia Namubiru here.  

I am a firm believer in making journeys, taking steps far out of my comfort zone for the sake of learning and seeking new experiences. That is for both physical and intellectual spaces. So when an opportunity to work for a short term with a major international agency came up, I packed my bags and headed to Europe. This wasn’t much about the big money we are made to believe awaits you there. The pay was decent, but what no one prepares you for and what is rarely talked about in-depth is what it means to be an African in an institution operated by a white majority in a white culture. Growing up in Uganda and working mainly in the great lakes region of East Africa, I had not much an idea of what this would mean. While I was aware of the dynamics in the development sector back home as satirically depicted in this film,  N.G.O- Nothing Going On directed by Arnold Aganze, a filmmaker originally from Eastern Congo but I was yet to experience life as a minority.

At the international level, we have seen tables shake in the last few months since the revelations of the Oxfam sex scandal in Haiti, where international NGO workers paid local women for sex. Following this storm and few other high profile abuse cases in the international aid sector, Angela Bruce-Raeburn, the former Senior Policy Advisor for the Humanitarian Response in Haiti at Oxfam America penned one of the most relatable responses.

In ‘But wait until they see your black face‘ looking at inclusion and racism in the sector, I found resonance. And the responses of other black women in the sector about mental gymnastics and marginalization one has to engage in to survive were all too familiar.

Why is it familiar? I have worked with international agencies as a consultant at different times. I was well aware of the need for agency of local people in the organizations they worked in. I was already loud about the caricatures we get used to in the media about people in need. So when I got called to work on migrants rights, it was an opportunity to immerse myself in one of the greatest challenges of our time across the world – forced migration. But neither my education in gender and media nor experiences in short visits abroad, and one year of living in a foreign country, would have prepared me for this scenario.

Working as an African woman/Black woman in a majority white and male organization, I would later learn that I had arrived at a time when there was push for diversity (not inclusion) from the way my supervisor showed me off to management. It was about him getting a qualified African woman in – something he wanted to be recognized for, instead of this being required practice.

In fact few months after my arrival in an all-white department, we were joined by two brilliant recruits – one Kenyan and another South Sudanese. To keep getting his credit from top management, one time he stopped the only African top manager in the corridors and called the three of us to show him ‘his African recruits’. I had no idea whether he was oblivious of what he was doing or if this was how he gets marks, but this was the first sign that things would not go well. In any case, we exchanged odd smiles with the manager and went back to work.  I had never been showed off in a workplace to someone simply because of the colour of my skin.


When one of the African recruits could not deliver a strategy at short notice – unreasonable given the person had not even finished orientation- the supervisor came to my office to ask me to tell this colleague that “if she did not have his strategy by end of the day she will be on the next plane back to  her country.” Before this day, no amount of bullying from this supervisor had ever broken me. This blatant racism and insensitivity made me close my office door and I wept. I wept because this African he was abusing had escaped war and still maintained her sanity and had come with a masters degree to offer her skills only to be met with a man like this. I wept because I could not bring myself to tell my African colleague these words knowing she had survived so much and her country was still at war. I thought it was my duty to protect her from such vile.

My supervisor was a European white male who had never been to Africa or the Arab world, but was ‘well suited’ to speak for experiences of migrants- and you know who make up a good number of migrants- “poor Africans”, as I heard on several occasions. And not forgetting the random questions about which African proverb fitted what situation when writing another press release on African migrants. To this man we were his African consultants, not people with skills and rightly deserving of doing our work.

To make matters worse, there was a very unclear relationship with the only white woman on the team. I say unclear because everything this white woman brought up in the meeting had to be taken up. In fact, one time this woman suggested I attend a certain meeting which I didn’t really think was a priority as I had lots of work on my table that day. I declined her suggestion and within the next thirty minutes, I had the supervisor on my door demanding that I go and that I cannot say no to the white lady. I was living or persevering amidst white rule and privilege. For the firs time it was becoming clear to me the role a white woman in this racist and sexist environment and how white women quietly while appearing friendly uphold white supremacy. She decided whether you got your contract renewed, as my Kenyan colleague learnt the hard way when they said no to her. His contract was pulled off the table at the last minute. I cannot count the time I got called after work with hailstones of abuse because one thing had not been executed on that day.

So, slowly staff meetings were predictable- and god forbid if someone in another department complimented your efforts on a project. I had never been in such a toxic environment where a supervisor would harangue you for speaking to someone in another department. He had consistent animosity towards female managers – who were all white. He would not shy away from sexist comments about these women in meetings. While most mid-level managers were aware of the abuse this man meted out, there was no room for addressing this- the system was just survival for the fittest.  The work was interesting, and I was learning a lot but it came with coping with an ignorant sexist white male boss.

After six months, I successfully got a contract from another department but he demanded that he remain my supervisor. And this ability to get a contract without him sanctioning it only drove him to the worst behaviour. I shared an office with another white male colleague who worked with his boss to push me to the wall. He constantly received his calls in loudspeaker and even the supervisor would call in talking about me and calling me all sorts of names. I was aware from those around them that their idea was to drive me out – that wasn’t lost on me. I had built a digital presence for the office from nothing. I had been able to build relations with those staff in country offices that often tremble at the mention of HQ- headquarters. But all this amounted to nothing if I was not grateful and obedient to this man. With such blatant bullying and abuse, two colleagues left their post; one changed department and another was denied a contract for not obeying the madam in the department.

We all tried in vain to report this racism and sexism. We were told by ‘friendly’ senior colleagues that it was impossible to do anything as ‘he had good connections with the big boys at the top‘. Also it was useless to go to the Ombudsman. Even the one new addition to the human resource office assured me it was useless to report, because as a consultant I would not leave in the right way. All the people I was trying to get a hearing or advice from in this chain were white and would not understand that what was going on was blatant racism and sexism so we spoke about this man as someone who’s bad-mannered.

With these hindrances and limitations to how far I could hold him accountable, I decided after one year to leave IOM. I took advice to leave well rather than try flogging a dead horse called ‘due diligence and justice’.  But I was damn depressed.  Speaking with other colleagues I was aware that the organization with less than 30 percent (I am putting it on the high) women working in an industry where women are the majority affected by crises, and here we were they could not afford a female minority worker a conducive toxic-free workplace. This inability to treat black people with dignity in the system tells you why the sector cannot reform to fit the needs of black and brown people who are the most affected by many man-made conflicts.  So with #AidToo I hope that this conversation brings forth the truth about racism and abuse in the development sector. Those in charge need to work towards solutions and inclusion- not just about numbers and getting minorities and women in positions of leadership, but ensuring that there’s genuine policy and practice shifts and avenues to prevent such abuse of power.

Rosebell Kagumire is a feminist writer, public speaker and award-winning  blogger. Her  experience spans  journalism, new media, rights in crisis, migration, women’s rights, peace and  security issues.  

  1. Dear Rosebell – So beautifully written and poignant. Thank you for reading my article, But Wait Until They see your Black Face- I wrote it to resonate with women like you and me. I struggled to define my rage on some days, my invisibility on other days and then there are the days when the disconnect and hypocrisy is so obvious that I am exhausted. Keep writing your truth.

    1. Thank you Angela for giving me courage to pen this experience down. This conversation and search for solutions must continue.

  2. Rosebell, thank you for your voice! My heart cracked picturing you in that office! I think a lot of us simply fail to speak publicly about these experiences because they strip off our dignity, they dehumanize us, and we are left to feel ‘weak’ to even imagine ‘ how can I with my brilliance be treated this way’, so we ‘hold our heads high’ and move along, and bury those nasty experiences. So thank you again for sharing!

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