The White Savior Industrial Complex & Sexual Harassment of African Female Aid Workers. Pls Take Our Poll

The following was originally posted on this blog in March 2012 about an incident that happened in 2010. Since then there has been no further developments in my case against Oxfam GB who have maintained that they acted appropriately and that no assault occurred.  I have  neither the time nor the money to pursue legal action even while I still struggle with the physical, emotional  and professional fall out of the assault that I experienced. Meanwhile, I continue to hear stories of sexual harassment and exploitation of female workers in African country offices of major international aid agencies including Oxfam. I have heard enough such stories to warrant a fuller investigation of the phenomena. Are international organizations  ignoring sexual harassment  and assault of local hires?  Are male managers in African INGO offices getting away with behavior that would not be tolerated or go unpunished in head office?  If you have been or if you know anyone who has been a victim of such harassment please write confidentially to me at lesley.agams@gmail.com. Comments are welcome.

October 2009.  I’m the new country director for Oxfam GB in Nigeria.

August 2010. I’ve been with Oxfam GB 10 months. I finally go to Oxford for Orientation. Its my first time in the UK.  Almost 60 CD’s from all over the world are in Oxford. There is a 3 day CD convention after the week of orientation.

I’m in the hotel lounge with the other CD’s from English West Africa talking shop. Our line manager joins us. He just arrived. We’re talking shop, programs and development. He refers to a document he wants me to see several times. It’s in his room he says. ‘I’ll pick it up on my way up to my room.’

It occurs to me going to his room may be a bad idea for all those reasons your momma ever told you. I dismiss the thought. We’re professionals. He’s my boss. He has never shown any inappropriate interest in me. Or vice versa. If I were a man I would go without hesitation. I go.

In his room he brings out the document, it’s a concept map. I don’t sit down; we discuss it briefly. I don’t want to stay long. A woman’s ability is always in doubt.  I don’t want my work to be devalued by rumors I may have been closer to the boss than appropriate. If I were a man I would stay. I go.

I walk towards the door. Turn to say good night. He grabs me. Pushes his tongue in my mouth. Pulls me back into the room, pushes me onto the bed. Grabs and fiddles with my belt buckle with one hand. My heart is pounding. My head is reeling. I clasp my teeth shut. Try to push him away. ‘No, no, no!’ Not strong enough but the space I create between us gives room for his hands to unbuckle my belt.

So I pull him closer. Relax. Play dead for a minute. For a split second it occurs to me that giving in would be easier. Let him have his way. Keep my job. Keep good working relationships. He’s lying on top of me. His smell fills my nostrils. This is not what I want. I rally all my strength and push him off.

‘How are we supposed to work together after this? I met your wife! What have you done? Why?” I rush out of the room. Downstairs. Sit in the cold outside. Smoke a cigarette. Try to compose myself. My thoughts race frantically. Not again. Not now. I thought I had outgrown this. I worry about my job. Not myself. Not yet.

I’m a Nigerian. Lived and worked in Nigeria all my adult life. It’s hard enough to report and prove a rape. An attempted rape? I don’t even think about it. My job is at risk. How do I protect my job? If I report how will I work with the West Africa team? Almost 90% of senior staff are male. I’m the only female CD in the English speaking countries. Only one female CD in the French speaking countries. Only 2 women on the regional management team.

Eventually I calm down and go to sleep. I see him at breakfast the next day. I shudder, I gag, I can’t eat. I note my reaction with some surprise and curiosity. I avoid him for the rest of the day. For the rest of the trip. I hear Oxfam GB has a head shrink for staff. I go see the shrink the next day. He calls in HR. I tell her my story.

‘Do you want to file a formal complaint?’ she asks.

‘I’m worried it will affect my working relationships in West Africa.’

‘Have you spoken to him? Told him how you feel?’

Huh? Lady I can barely look at him without a violent reaction.

‘Did you tell him ‘no’?

Huh? Didn’t I say that already?

‘Does he know his action was not welcome?’

Huh? Are you suggesting I led him on?

‘We handled a complaint recently. Two employees that had an affair that went bad.’

Huh? Are you suggesting this is an affair gone bad?

Is this a preview of a formal hearing?

‘Look. I don’t know what I want to do right now but I want you to know in case he tries to victimize me.’

’You should talk to him. Tell him how you feel.’

But I can’t. Not yet.

In September I finally call him and follow up with an email. He takes my call but ignores my email. I go to regional office in October, try to act normal. I’m still communicating with HR in Oxford, still looking for a way past this. Still worried, still confused, still devastated. I still have flash backs.

On the 23rd  of November he arrives Abuja from Dakar after closing hours, hands me a letter terminating my contract. I have two days to clear out of the office. Transitions plans already in place. Reason given? An online ad to fill the positions of the troublesome program staff. One was sacked the other resigned rather than answer a query. But the ads weren’t authorized by me and I withdrew them.

I lose my appeal. Oxfam GB says he acted within Nigerian law. Says there is no corroboration to my allegations of sexual assault. What of my report to the shrink? To the HR? What of my email to the accused? He admits I came to his room but denies the events, says I hit on him, that he ‘sent me away’. That my email ‘baffled him.’ They believe him not me. What corroboration is there for his version?

I hear stories from other women that worked in international development. Similar stories. From West Africa. From East Africa. From South Africa. Randy expatriate boss. Getting away with things he wouldn’t even try in his home country. The local women always lose their jobs.  One is still in court 5 years later, her savings exhausted.

I eventually I do make a report to the Thames Valley Police. They believe me, record a crime, investigate, even though too much time has passed and they don’t find enough evidence for a trial. Still it will be evidence if he’s ever reported again. They consider extraditing him for questioning.  He resigns abruptly.  I feel a bit better but how to fix the bigger problem?How do I fight a cash rich behemoth like Oxfam GB in court? I’m still working on that problem.

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30 Responses to “The White Savior Industrial Complex & Sexual Harassment of African Female Aid Workers. Pls Take Our Poll”

  1. Kiru Taye Says:

    Your story has me really pissed off that he behaved that way especially since he was working for organisation that’s supposed to help the less privileged.

    Thank you for being brave and reporting him to the police. Perhaps he’ll think twice before doing it again.

  2. zarachiron Says:

    This story makes my blood boil.

    God bless you. You are strength personified. This world is not our own and that disgusting bastard will meet his tainted truth in a way that none of us could ever tell it to him.

    Heal yourself, cleanse, continue to look forward. This was only one event (however awful) in the history of your entire life still ahead of you. Know that your bravery to speak out will eventually help others who will come after you.

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  19. kate Says:

    Lesley, I truly proud of you! However, Oxfam should bury their head in shame! Having never workked for an international organization, I cannot say anything about sexual harrassment in such places. As for privately owned Niegrian companies, it is alive, well and kicking! Nigerian men do not simply know their limits!

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  23. A Says:

    It happened to me and I STILL haven’t fully summoned up the courage to speak about it. Of course, I lost the job but I conquered the fear and I have my dignity. What irks the most is the “organisational” support the culprit gets, the undermining of work/position that goes on, the smartness to make it a work deficiency rather than the truth that the abused is suffering for verbal/non-verbal “NOs” said

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