In this age where the battle for equal rights across race and gender is highly topical, particularly in the Western world, Britain’s colonial past has of course caused a few controversies. Yet while the future of the statues of Cecil Rhodes, who has become the symbolic epitome of everything wrong with Britain’s colonial past, expats in Kenya appear oblivious to what all the fuss is about.
Before I came out to Olepangi Farm, a string of holiday cottages essentially for tourists looking to do horseback or driven safaris, to do a stint of volunteering, a previous (white, English) volunteer informed me that I should beware of how lazy the Kenyan staff are. Myself and my fellow volunteer got lectured various times by the (white, British) owners of the farm on how the customer service in Kenya was not nearly as subservient “as in the Orient”, never would be and it was important to establish boundaries and keep checking on the staff to make sure things happen. Again this was sort of bound up in the idea that they were Kenyan and therefore prone to being lazy.
Now I’m sure there are lazy people in Kenya. I’m also pretty sure that’s not because they are Kenyan. That’s just because some human beings regardless of where they come from are lazy. In fact, the staff at Olepangi Farm were far from lazy and enabled the place to run like clockwork for guests regardless of what country the owners were in, or if they were on their endless conference calls or away at the polo and unable to entertain or even meet the guests.
This attitude of ‘us versus them’ between the white rurally-based expats and the local people is jarringly emphasised further by the difference between living and working conditions. Of course, expats can’t be expected to sort out the economy of a country by splashing all their cash everywhere and suddenly replicating Western wages within a developing country (or can they? Would this cause economic upset, I’m really interested to know). But I find something just a little bit distasteful about the idea that people would choose to move to a country deliberately because they can get such a high standard of living with lots of servants and cooks as they are all dirt cheap and desperate for some form of employment. So desperate they will walk a 6km round trip to work every day. To somewhere, where they are paid a measly salary and are not even given tea in a tea break.
Of course, they wouldn’t say that’s why they live there, and Kenya has other attractions – the wildlife, the natural landscape, so it’s a perfect home I guess for anyone who loves nature and nothing else apart from socialising with the small community of other rich, white expats. (I must say, as someone who needs regular culture in their life, and loves animals and nature, I am flummoxed by people who choose to live full-time in the middle of literally nowhere, what do they do all day, everyday?). But still, it doesn’t explain away the ‘us and them’ attitude.
A trip to the polo club was a nice reiteration of this attitude. With the exception of two people, all the players were white (all incredibly blonde actually) and all the grooms (who had to sleep in windowless concrete rooms next to the stables if their boss’ ponies were overnighting) who did all the work of looking after and tacking up and untacking the horses were local Kenyans.
As someone who is neither Caucasian nor black – this weird expat versus locals atmosphere was particularly confusing. Where do I sit in this spectrum? I wouldn’t have been surprised to be told the blonde toddlers causing havoc at the polo club, chased by their Kenyan nannies, had a higher status than me.
Britain may be embarrassed about her colonial past. It would seem her expats in some countries appear less so.