My appointment as Deputy Field Director for OXFAM in Kenya had been on the basis of a two year contract, during which OXFAM decreed that my post should be filled by a Kenyan. So six months before the end of my two years, we started the search for a new Deputy Field Director. We were not short of applicants!
Receiving, logging, sorting and rejecting applications seemed to take for ever, but eventually we had six candidates to interview and eventually whittled those down to two outstanding women, both of whom were impressive in interview, met all the criteria that we were looking for in our job description, but who had very differing experience and work history. We struggled to find any way of eliminating either of them from the race.
One candidate had considerable relevant experience working in other Non-Governmental Organisations in Kenya. The other had climbed the steep rungs of the Kenyan civil service , eventually reaching a position that, if my memory serves me well, was just short of District Commissioner. It should be remembered that, at this time, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to hold any position of responsibility in the very macho, male-dominated world of Kenyan officialdom and certainly not at senior level.
Both women were exceptional. We needed to find a way to choose between them.
Our solution was to send them on a visit to one of the projects that OXFAM was funding in the infamous Mathare Valley. Mathare Valley was, and still is, a huge slum on the edge of Nairobi, a notorious and dangerous place. Certainly not a place to be after dark.
Tens of thousands of people were crammed together in a sprawling chaos of rickety wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs, often without any toilets or running water. It was not unknown to see people living in houses that had been cobbled together from flattened-out milk cartons! Such was the level of poverty.
When it rained, the whole valley just became a foul-smelling quagmire and in the middle of this urban hell-hole there was a valiant little school that was trying to offer some sort of care and education to abandoned children, many of whom had significant learning difficulties to accompany their poverty. Our project partner, who ran the place, was an indominable woman, who never seemed to lose her hope or her optimism that she could make a difference in this truly awful environment. We were privileged to be able to fund her work.
We decided to send our two candidates into the Valley together to visit this school, accompanied just by our driver, the equally indominable Peter Thuo, so that they could see at first hand the kind of project that OXFAM was funding. We judged that, if we had gone with them, it would not only have attracted too much unhelpful attention in the area, but it would also have changed the dynamic of the visit. We arranged for two report-back meetings to take place back at our office after the visits – one with our project partner and the other with Peter Thuo, once he had delivered both candidates home at the end of the day.
The result was illuminating and made our eventual decision much easier.
Both women turned up at the project inappropriately dressed, which was our fault, not theirs. We hadn’t told then, when we invited them to their second interviews, that we would be including a project visit in the day’s proceedings. In retrospect, that seems a little unfair on our part, a bit of a dirty trick to play, but that was how we decided to play it and it did break the impasse in which we had found ourselves.
Our project partner commented on the differences in the way that both candidates reacted to the project and to the children within it. The woman who had spent her career working within the government structure was monosyllabic throughout the visit, clearly discomforted by the experience. She found it difficult to relate to the project partner, even on a conversational level, and didn’t interact with the children at all. The whole experience had obviously shaken her.
The candidate from the NGO background had no such inhibitions. Her manner was relaxed and supportive and she even began her conversation with the project partner by apologising for turning up at the project dressed for an interview in an office.
When we spoke to Peter Thuo later in the day, he reported that during the 30 minutes that it had taken him to drive the two candidates to Mathare Valley, the woman from the government had not exchanged a single word with him, whereas the other woman had chatted away quite naturally.
So, job done. Decision made. We had found my replacement. But what about me? What was I going to do, once my two years were over.
Well, as luck would have it, the post of OXFAM Field Director for neighbouring Uganda was coming up so I thought I would have a good chance of getting the job, given that it was the next step up the promotion ladder and still within East Africa, where I had cut my development teeth.
Clearly, moving to Uganda was going to be a big decision for us as a family, so we arranged for Linda to fly to Kampala, at our expense, to meet some of the OXFAM staff there, to get a feel for the country and to look at our options for schooling for our two children. (As luck would have it, we didn’t have to pay for her return flight because, for reasons that I cannot now remember, there was a Landrover in Kampala that needed to come back to Nairobi, so the OXFAM driver from Kampala drove Linda to the border and got the vehicle through its customs formalities, and Linda drove it all the way back to Nairobi.) Linda’s assessment of the situation, after her brief visit, was that it was worth my putting in an application for the post. Yoweri Museveni had just come to power and it was starting to look as if Uganda was turning a corner.
Then events intervened. A German doctor’s car was attacked in broad daylight in Kampala and the doctor was shot and wounded. The house of another expatriate was broken into and the Ugandan staff who worked there were clubbed to death. Then thieves broke into the compound of the Director of the British NGO, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), and tried to steal his vehicle. The Director became aware of the commotion outside his house and, almost on instinct, rushed out to try and prevent the theft. He was shot dead!
We took the view that it would not be a responsible decision on our part to proceed with my application for the OXFAM Field Director’s job and to potentially move our two small children to Kampala.
And so the points changed again.