12 June 2014

'Africa' is a real subject, sub-category: Writing about M-PESA

So here’s a story about M-PESA. Another one. Written by Charles Graeber for Bloomberg Businessweek:

‘I had traveled from New York to Nairobi to learn how to do exactly this—to pay for things with a phone—and to understand why Kenya has gained a reputation as the mobile payments future. (...) though I believe myself well-traveled, I’d never even set foot in Africa. All to the better, my editors said; there were already too many self-styled experts on how East Africa was leapfrogging more mature economies on mobile payments.’

And you know what? There’s actually a reason why it might be a better idea to have such an article written by a so-called ‘self-styled expert’. Or just someone who's familiar with it. Because M-PESA is hardly a new subject, and there are a great number of people who know how the system has developed and works, and who also know the basics about Nairobi:

The airport didn’t burn to the ground, for example, and the city isn't referred to as ‘Nai-rob-me’. This article is sprinkled with mistakes on M-PESA, too: the daily transaction limit and the maximum balance are wrong, for example, and pesa means money, not payment. No mention of the fact that you can now transfer money from your bank account to your mobile account, which saves you running around with cash. This is not available to the author as he’s a tourist, but certainly an important feature in how the service has developed both in competition and co-operation with the banking sector. Or that Safaricom developed mobile money further to offer a payment platform specifically for retailers. The article has the inevitable NGO stories, but no mention of M-PESA’s payroll services (because yes, there are employed people here).

Le Sigh. No doubt well intended, but sloppy. ‘Africa’ is a real subject. So do some real homework.

11 June 2014

Kenya Inc: Standing Solidly with Rapist Elders?

This was an interesting (for lack of a better word) couple of weeks with corporate ethics in Kenya. A few weeks ago, in the Business Daily, Frank Njenga responded to someone seeking advice on how to speak out about having been abused as a teenager. The situation had been made more complicated by the fact that the abuser was now considered a ‘respected elder’. Mr Njenga lobbed a misplaced bible quote at the woman. And then he went on a lengthy, absurd and highly unprofessional speculation that she had really been making all this up in a strange desire to bring shame upon herself and her husband and destroy her family.

This would have been outrageous ‘advice’ by any measure. But I read this pretty much around the same time as this news item from the Standard: ‘A Kenyan High Court has ordered police to reinvestigate complaints of rape by 11 girls in a landmark case brought by a children's charity on behalf of more than 240 victims of child rape, some of them as young as three years old. (...) (The girls) came to the charity for help after being raped by fathers, grandfathers, uncles, police officers and neighbours. The police rarely investigated their complaints, even locking one girl in a cell after she reported one of their colleagues had raped her (...). Police demanded bribes to investigate rape, refused to investigate unless the victims produced witnesses, and said victims had consented to intercourse, the victims said.'

I still have no words for how angry this made me. How incredibly angry. Digest it: Children as young three years. Raped. By the very people who should be looking out for and protecting them. Read the two articles parallel, and your stomach turns. And those rapists get away with it, time and time again: because the system fail (the police are the rapists) and people like Mr Njenga create the environment in which the ‘respected elders’ will continue being respected while the victims will be silenced. ‘Respected elders’ standing up for another one?

As I said earlier, I saw little point of engaging Mr Njenga – someone who gives such ‘advice’ has chosen his side, and you don’t need to engage with every reactionary who is muttering away in the corner of the bar. I was looking at the role of organisations here. First of all I was stunned that the Nation Media Group would run this article, just like that. Was there nobody who looked at it before it went to print? I emailed the NMG about this. Four very senior people. Repeatedly. They hmmmed and hahed, and admitted in private emails that yes, this hadn’t been ideal. But that wasn’t the point: this wasn’t about telling me. The reason why I kept emailing them was because the NMG is the largest media group in the region and it is an outrage that it carries such reinforcement for rapist ‘elders’.

But I didn’t just try to speak to the NMG: Mr Njenga is also the chairman of AAR. I happen to have been a client of AAR for several years. So I emailed the CEO to inquire whether, if I ever sought medical help after sexual abuse, I’d be confronted with bible quotes and accusations of lying. Whether that was, in fact, corporate healthcare policy. Mr Gakunju weaseled out of this by responding that he had forwarded my inquiry to Mr Njenga and I should wait for his response. So far, deafening silence.

I also asked the Kenya Medical Board’s CEO, Dr Yumbia, for a comment. Repeatedly. Deafening silence.

And then I emailed the head of the Psychiatrist Association, Dr. Mutiso. Deafening silence.

After a couple of weeks of pestering, Business Daily put this on their Facebook page: ‘BUSINESS DAILY has noted the controversy and offence caused to some by Frank Njenga's column. We would like to state that Nation Media Group, and Business Daily in this instance, has a firm policy of non-discrimination, and in no way condones a disrespectful and insensitive treatment of victims of sex abuse. Dr Njenga's views are those of a columnist, and in no way represents NMG's views. We sincerely and deeply regret and apologise for the pain and embarrassment caused. Thank you.’

So: we print stuff that people send us, but we don’t read it. We just print it. Don’t hold us responsible for content?

That’s the best you got? Seriously now?

So there we are. Kenya Inc, presumably fathers, husbands, uncles: standing solidly with rapist elders. This keeps happening on such a broad scale not just because there are people who will actively back and protect the rapists, but also because the good guys don’t have the you-know what to speak up.

In somewhat related news, I’m keen to hear from a reputable health insurance company with no implicit or explicit policy of treating anyone seeking help after sexual abuse with bible quotes and accusations of lying and sluttery. I don’t smoke, I drink very little, I exercise regularly, I mostly eat healthily. Also, I’m a woman, so I don’t fall sick with the wildly dangerous man flu. Anyone?

Originally published on 15 July 2013 on The Star.

Edited to add: Mr Gakunju eventually responded after I copied Swedfund, one of AAR's investors, on my follow up email (and after the column was published in the Star): 'We at AAR are “stakeholders” of Gender Recovery Centre. Our staff are fully trained to deal with the medical conditions in this area and more importantly, the trauma that accompanies these types of terrible and mental scarring incidences. Points expressed by the writer in the Business Daily are personal and are not AAR’s.' Well phew!

The Radical Notion that Women are People

I am lucky: I have a lot of wonderful people in my life. Amongst them are my girlfriends. Most of them, all, I think, are professionals. Some of them mothers, but not all. This wasn’t a deliberate choice, but since I’m quite wrapped up in my work, I think it just so happened that most of my close women friends also fall into that category. Obviously I think they are great, because why would I be friends with them otherwise? They are smart, interesting, passionate about what they do, and fun to hang out with. And they are part of the web of support that helps keep me standing, and going, personally, professionally: Advice, or a piece of information, or an introduction are usually just a phone call or email away. I’m happy for them when they succeed, and I think they are the bee’s knees anyway.

All of this is both wonderful, and also very normal. So I was more than a little taken aback to read an article by a Peter Mutua on ‘The problem with having too many women leaders in a firm’. Mr Mutua states: ‘Women are necessary, lovely, delightful, wonderfully colourful creatures. However, when they constitute an overwhelming majority of management within a workplace, the resulting corporate environment can be disturbing.’

I have no idea what trauma Mr Mutua went through. Possibly being challenged a little insistently on rubbish statements such as these? Leaving aside his convoluted writing, his reasoning is underwhelming: ‘Till late 2012, a local State corporation had women occupying 10 of its 11 senior management positions. While this oversight was recently rectified to include three more men, this corporation’s results fall far short of the expectations given by women activists.’

I have thoughts on this, several thoughts: That this must be a very unusual organization for Kenya, because how often do you find any company where women hold the majority of board seats? Or the majority of senior management positions? And: That women are people. Like men. Some will do exceedingly well, many will be mediocre, some will be lousy. By Mr Mutua’s reasoning, KPLC (Smooches, guys. Nothing personal. Not hating you too much this week) must be run entirely by women’s rights activists.

These are things I’m over: That behavior we salute in men – say, assertiveness – becomes a liability in women. That women’s bad behavior is seen as reflecting all women. Yeah, Rachel Shebesh and Mary Wambui did beat doors down in the middle of the night, and I disapprove – but good grief, have you ever had a look at what male politicians have gotten up to for decades? I’m done with the fact that portraits of successful women have to include the necessary addition of how humble and simple she really is (better still: chuck in husband and how he’s still ‘the head of the household’ when she gets home).

And I’m done with this getting airplay. I emailed a couple of people at the Nation Media Group about this Business Daily article to ask, facetiously, whether misogyny had now become editorial policy at the NMG. I would have probably let this slip – after all, you don’t need to respond to every chauvinist idiot muttering away in the corner of the bar – if it had not been for a piece that the NMG had published a few days earlier: this was an ‘advice column’ (quotation marks of derision here) by Frank Njenga. He had responded to a letter by someone who had been abused as a teenager by someone who was now a ‘respected elder’. Despite now being married, she (or he – it’s not possible to tell from the letter) finds this so much of a burden that she wants to speak out about this. Mr Njenga starts off nicely with ‘the truth will set you free’. And then he compares her to the adulterous woman in the bible who only those without sin should throw stones at – missing the point by a couple of miles. This is not someone seeking advice for her own mistake, but for a crime committed against her. Njenga then launches into a convoluted, lengthy, unsubstantiated speculation that she wishes to bring ruin upon her husband and her own family and essentially made the whole thing up anyway. Lesson: If you seek to speak out about abuse, you’re a slutty slut and a liar. Mr Njenga – a ‘respected elder’ protecting another one?

I have little interest in engaging with Mr Njenga. His victim shaming is clearly beyond redemption. But I will engage with the NMG. It is one of the largest and, by virtue of being a media house, most influential corporates in the Kenya (and, let me add that, certainly not the only one to publish misogynistic nonsense). In any better regulated market, Njenga would have been struck of. I am baffled that nobody at the NMG looked at this piece before publishing it and thought ‘Ummm maybe not’. I am the NMG’s client, and as a client, I will call them out on this. Again - I’m still waiting for a response.

And now I’m off to email Safaricom why a talk by governor Evans Kidero was billed as ‘Mantalk’ for a male audience. Nairobi women residents too colourful and fluttery to have an interest in weighty matters as how our city is run?

‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are people’ (attributed to British suffragist and journalist Rebecca West).

Originally published on 15 June 2013 on The Star.