I am currently at a meeting hosted by a UN institution discussing biodiversity policy, targets and community rights in various contexts around the world. I am now old and qualified enough to throw shade or insult the UN amongst their officers (its strangely satisfying, but that’s a story for another day). Conservation and resource discourses have revolved for many decades around the ideas of old white men, so every meeting worth its salt that wants to maintain the status quo has what I call blackyouthgenderwashing. In simple English, it is an invited participant (often asked to speak) to make this nangsengs look good. The person needs to be young, black, or female (ideally all three, if the available resources can only afford to bring one invitee). Invariably these youngsters are enthralled by the opportunity afforded to them and feel the need to parrot the clichés of their benefactors. My attention has been drawn by one such young lady doing that here. I’ve had a long chat with her and told to “harden her cranium”. Luckily, she is from East Africa and could understand the Kiswahili syntax. Young people in this situation, you’ve been given a chance to make your mark: speak your mind! Here is the story I shared with her, because I am now old enough to speak plainly. One of my My MSc supervisors was a world-renowned carnivore ecologist. He was white, American and racist AF. I discovered this early in my research when we had an argument about research equipment, so I was baffled at why he recruited a student as black as me. After all he had been doing research in Kenya since the 1970s and had never had a black student. That’s when in a discussion with the project funder (AWF) I found out that he had received a grant that stipulated he must have an indigenous Kenyan student. That’s when I said OOOoooo!! (in a Dholuo accent) and ‘thickened my cranium’ to military helmet levels. I then made PEACE with the fact that I was a ‘blackwash’ and not a preferred student. I decided that I will never back down to him, and I will ‘kill’ the research project until he respects me. I also let him know that I don’t like him and I we would sit for hours driving across Laikipia in his single cab landcruiser pickup without me saying a word. I finished that MSc. 22 years ago and got my respect after publishing several papers, a book chapter and conference presentations from my work. We never spoke again after he signed my thesis. For the record, he’s never had another indigenous Kenyan student since I finished, so I suppose my skull also showed him things.
Young people always ask me whether they should take up scholarships or jobs with these racist conservation organizations or individuals. YES! Get in there, learn about them, do the job, but do not lose your soul. FOCUS on what your aspirations are and (if you don’t have a 32gb memory like mine) keep a diary of these transgressions and learn from them. At the right time, stand up and change things, or get out and fight like hell with the qualifications and information you have. Information is power, and those who have heard me speak truth to these people know that true power shuts people up. On the other hand, if you decide to follow the gravy train and become their kitchen toto, make PEACE with that and proceed accordingly. Don’t cry about being my “African brother” when one of my missiles hits you, because you are just collateral damage, which I have made PEACE with. When the racism gets too stifling, make PEACE with your kitchen toto status and don’t call me saying “nyefnyefnyef is going on, but I cant say anything because of my job, can you highlight it?” No, I won’t. You’re a kitchen toto, so don’t complain about the smell of onions, sawa? Young people in conservation; Make your decisions early enough in life, and make PEACE with it.