Being queer is empowering me to step away from hyper sexualised gender narratives. Narratives that normalise or problematise hyper sexual relationship between the men and women. When I am neither a man or woman I can look at myself like a Person demand to be treated like a Person. After the feminist republik, the accountability summit and naming myself queer I began to see my personal situation in a whole different light.
Hitherto I’ve been focusing on my unfair dismissal from Oxfam. I neglected to pursue that Oxfam might be liable in tortious negligence or under personal injury law or even human rights law. Like a deer caught in headlights I stared straight ahead. The first time I learnt that I may have had a personal injury claim was in July 2013 and I was told at the time it was two weeks away from the statute of limitation. It still did not click.
The legal issue between me and Oxfam should have been for personal injury and breach of duty of care. Not unfair dismissal. I didn’t want the job back anyway and I didn’t want another job in the sector. I admit I was seduced by the comfort of a generous salary. In low wage nations employment is not attractive to people like me. We innovate and entrepreneur. IAO’s changed all that. They compete for the best and brightest. And in the local context pay outrageous salaries. Its easy to be seduced. (But what they pay us is nothing compared to what they pay Old White Men that come to Africa claiming to be experts. I met one who received EUR10,000 per month. Late sixties. Asian wife in mid 20s. Or African wife late teens. They ARE a catch. But I digress. More later.)
It was fortuitous I attended the accountability meeting. I don’t go out much anymore. I’ve become reclusive. I almost didn’t notice how much I’ve changed. I’ve been struggling with insomnia, flashbacks, depression, self doubt, anxiety, loss of confidence, guilt and shame. Atrocities are being committed across Nigeria and no one is being held accountable. Because there are no consequences for bad behaviour. People do not learn from words they learn from experience. Killings are not the only atrocities. Sexual assault and rape are atrocities too.
As the revelations against Oxfam and the Aid sector piled up, culminating in the IDC Report released on 31 July 2018, the scale, the audacity and the sheer disregard for women’s well being including my own overwhelmed me. IAOs were scrambling to cover their ass, regulators were scrambling to show that they are alive, state departments were scrambling to show they were taking care of tax payers money. Winnie grovelled. Goldring obfuscated. Dame Stocking dithered. The media scrambled to eke out the news cycle. Reporters and producers called me from all over the world.
Even the Daily Mail got in touch and offered to ghost write my story. Back in October after The Times article came out and Oxfam reacted so blandly I joked they would react more vigorously when The Sun or The Daily Mail carried their story of misdeeds. Little did I know. I turned the Daily Mail down. I read The Daily Mail about once a month to catch up on the social life of the rich and famous. I call it My Guilty Pleasure. I could immediately imagine what the headlines might be.
The Times headline was difficult enough. “Lesley Agams: Oxfam official pushed me on to hotel bed and grabbed my belt.” I was mortified when I read that. This is after all a global publication. I know its what happened and what I said but it still came as a shock. In my wildest dreams I did not expect that the first time my name appears in global headlines it would be like that. The thought that I could go down in history as Lesley Agams the woman who an Oxfam official tried to rape was distressing. And it would’ve been on the front-page if not for Catalonia. Thank goddess for Catalonia!
I pushed my feelings aside and focused on my desire for justice and accountability. This was an opportunity for justice, I told myself. This was an opportunity to hold Oxfam GB accountable. This was an opportunity for me and for the other women I was sure were silently and passively experiencing the same thing to get justice. This was an opportunity to change how the entire sector treats its female employees.
Before I agreed to work with The Times on the October story I did my research. I studied their audience. When the media requests came pouring in after the Haiti scandal broke I adopted a similar strategy. What audience did I want to reach? I settled for BBC’s Newsnight but was rather disappointed to be asked at the end of my interview whether people should still give aid. Its not about Aid. Its about People. Like me. See us.
A couple people noticed the strain I was obviously under during the interview and reached out to support and sympathise with me. (Thank you for caring. You know who you are. I love you.) The Newsnight story ended with a statement from Samuel Musa insisting my dismissal was for ‘other reasons’. Does that mean I deserve to get raped?Does it even matter why I was dismissed?
You can see the full Newsnight segment here. Trigger warning. It triggers me watching it.
Meanwhile I was being asked to retell my story again and again. Being more self aware of my well being I decided to tell it one time last time and gave a 30 min interview to Mercy Abang a Nigerian journalist. You may have seen it or not. It got 172 views on YouTube. Ask me. What was my target audience? I met Mercy when Amy Costello at Tiny Sparks interviewed me for a podcast on sexual harassment on the sector in October 2017. The interview with Mercy was for the record. I wanted to tell my own story, my own way. She was the only one that promised not to cut it for soundbites.
After the October 2017 Times publication Mark Goldring, Winnie Byanyima and Penny Lawrence continued to defend Oxfam’s 2010 decision to dismiss me and insisted that due care had been taken in the investigation of the sexual assault after they were made aware of it. Their own records did not support this assertion and members of their own staff pointed this out to them. My personnel file which I obtained through a subject access request in December 2017 had vital records missing.
When in November 2017 Mark Goldring first wrote to me, I asked for an independent review of my case and to be allowed to exercise of my right to select an investigator. He wrote back to me sometime after 6 December 2017 denying my request and claiming he had personally reviewed my case and stood by both the dismissal and the investigation of the sexual assault. His apology was buried somewhere at the end of the email. It was so nonchalant and dismissive I was deeply offended.
I managed to get through the holidays. I experienced depression and anxiety attacks. I lost appetite. I lost weight. I had difficulty sleeping. I had difficulty with focus and concentration. Then in February 2018 the story about Oxfam in Haiti broke. Sean O’Neill sent me a message to alert me. Oxfam responded robustly this time. It was like watching your bully get bullied. But there were more insinuations about my performance and further justification of my dismissal in 2010. They made no more mention of the attempted rape. Then Dame Barbara came on television and tried to excuse her terrible handling of the Haiti scandal. Her sanctimonious chirping about respect for women and women’s rights after her handling of my 2012 appeal made me livid. I was angry. I had a meltdown on Twitter.
Then I fell really sick. I had to contact my therapist in the U.K. Soon after that l emailed the wonderful supportive people that I met since October 2017 telling them I had to step back for my health. It was taking its toll. I don’t know if they understood. I heard some disappointment here and there but I had to prioritise my self care. At that point nothing else mattered. I just knew I needed to step away and soothe myself back to health.
Well I feel stronger now. Clearer. More focused. Angrier. But my anger is white hot and like Leslie Jamison’s and Audre Lordes’ a tool now. Things are different. I’m not alone. We are many, staff and beneficiaries. Oxfam knew what was going on and deliberately, cynically and opportunistically chose to ignore our safety and well being.
We spoke about it at the feminist republik; the dangers of this epithet of strong woman we so readily accept and use to dismiss and let others use to dismiss our pain and need for attention and healing. Till it becomes a epitaph. Because you know. We’re women. We’re African women. We can’t afford to have a breakdown. Life as we know it will collapse. The very fibre of community and society will disintegrate. Families will unravel. And all hell will break loose. Look around. All hell is breaking loose already. And not just in Africa. Look at what’s happening in America and Europe. We are witnessing the systematic dismantling of a liberal democracy and a rise in fascism.
The strong woman trope is a scam. Once you accept it you let people off the hook. You absorb their abuse, their thoughtlessness, their patronising rhetoric and melodramatic promises of reform instead holding them accountable.
I’m not doing strong woman anymore. My well being and health are too precious. I manage my stress levels very carefully now. I could relate with the experience described in Hope’s Letter. It made me ask how did it happen? Oxfam sent me for a mandatory health test before making me a job offer. All was well. Less than two months later I was diagnosed with a stress related auto-immune condition. That’s how toxic the working environment was. First of all there was way too much sexism. The few women there were support staff. Not program staff and not decision makers. I wanted to quit after just two weeks. But you know what they say – winners don’t quit. Don’t believe cliches.
I was deeply resented at the Nigeria office and I wrote to Samuel Musa on numerous occasions about the gendered problems I was having with staff. We held several mediation meetings. It was a war. On so many levels. One day I found a huge mangled rat on the threshold of my office. It meant nothing to me till I mentioned it to a religious Nigerian colleague. I remember thinking to myself – seriously? Could it be that bad? By the time I was dismissed I decided to resolve the problem myself or leave and informed the regional management team. I didn’t expect to be dismissed. I thought there were rules. The Oxfam rules which I had been introduced to as soon as I signed the doted line on my employment contract. Anyway, I did achieve something I’m really proud of before I was dismissed. I cleaned up the accounts department. The acting CD before me had systematically dismantled it. The new accounts staff were proud to work with me and still came to me for advice on handling ethical situations long after I left Oxfam.
My dismissal does not matter as much as my well being. I feel better already acknowledging it. Its a big step for me to acknowledge my need for self care. It feels revolutionary to be prioritising my well being. It’s my right. Its my responsibility. It is my duty. It can be hard for a ‘strong African woman’ to admit to injury and a need for support. In a dog eat dog world, physical or mental injury can make one feel very vulnerable. As an social rights activist it can also make one feel very guilty.
“Honour your anger,” Martin Knops said to me. He could have helped me deal with my injury first. When I went to him in August 2010 after the assault I was looking for help to recover from the trauma of my experience not a push to go to Human Resources.
Like John Oliver the host of ‘last Week Tonight’ said on his segment on sexual harassment in the workplace.
“HR exists to protect the Organisation from liability not necessarily to seek justice on an employees behalf.”
I wrote to Martin Knops again in July 2013 literally begging him for help –
“I have been struggling since the incident physically and emotionally. I am confused, I am still angry and I need help. I would like appeal to you as a doctor, I appeal to your humanity, I appeal to your conscience and to your compassion. Please help me.”
He did not respond. There was no human in the humanitarian.
Honour your loss, Tony Robbins would say. And then tell yourself a different story.
So I did you know.