I started a two-year secondment as an HR executive in 2013 in Nairobi and my first two months was a blur as I tried to find my feet in a new country and in a different role.
My role for Deloitte, included working with HR teams and local talent across a number of countries – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi. I did not at first have the luxury of a vehicle and initially relied on a bunch of great Kenyan taxi drivers to get me from the apartment to the office and back every day.
Traveling with these guys gave me a good introduction to the Kenyan and the East African way of life and how the pulse works in this world. There is a saying that indicates the rhythm of East Africa and that is “nothing is what it seems”.
Late in December (2013) I drove my own vehicle up to Nairobi. This trip, on my own, was from Johannesburg through Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and into Kenya. This was over 5 days (4400 km) and it was a beautiful road trip.
During my time in East Africa I experienced many road trips and positive interactions with the people and the nature of East Africa. One particular interesting trip took place during April 2014.
My wife and I travelled together to Kampala (Uganda) from Nairobi during which I landed up in holding cell.
This was a work-related journey. The speeding laws are vigorously applied here in Kenya. I was told that maximum speed is 110km, but it turns out that only applies to double lane highways. On most roads it is 100km and 50km around the villages.
Just before some remote little village I was pulled over for supposedly doing 112km. The rules here (probably unless you pay a bribe) is that you have to appear in court.
So, they kept me and a couple of other people at the local police station for 2 hours where they also kept my driver’s license. Then my wife had to drive me to the local magistrates’ court which is about 20 kilometers away.
Inside a cell in a Kenyan prison
They put me in a holding cell with about 50 other people (believe it or not including some so called chicken stealers, thieves, rapists and a few murderers) and held me there for 3 hours while waiting for the traffic offenses to be heard. I was the only foreigner in the group where we all stood shoulder to shoulder.
In the meantime, my wife sat around outside with her camera. She secretly had been shooting everything on video from the hip – although one cop I think suspected her and he kept wagging his finger at her. At one point he even asked for her camera but she refused.
Anyway, she could smell the stink from the cell from where she was sitting about 30 meters away. When entering the cell, I nearly gagged because of the smell but someone who was a pastor (also in for a traffic misdemeanor) came and stood next to me for the whole time (about 3 hours). He gave me a sense of calm and stillness. We had many interesting conversations about life and the situation that we both found ourselves in.
Many people came over to me and spoke about their predicaments and I was humbled to hear about the lives people led. In the end I pleaded guilty and paid about +/- KES 7000 (+/- R1,200) as a fine. We then had to drive all the way back to the police station to get my license and then go on our way. So, in the end, we lost about 7 hours of traveling time.
Learnings and broader views
Now for me what is interesting about life is to ask oneself – what have I learned from the above experience and what could I have done differently? I usually have a rough checklist in my head that I often use when I think about situations. Here are some views.
- Leadership – The cops and the legal system seemed to function. But I got the feeling that if bribes were offered, there would have been different outcomes. In Kenya I am told that there is a culture of bribing in place as it is used to supplement the salaries – how can this culture be changed? One way could be through strong leadership where bribes are not tolerated and high performance is the norm. I have since that day paid a couple of bribes under different circumstances – stories for another day.
- Teamwork – As my wife was part of the trip, we both experienced the above in different ways and the good thing is that we could talk through and unpack the day in a balanced way.
- Communication – What helped me in the holding cell was the presence of the pastor and many people who came to share their situations with me. My wife had a similar experience outside the cell as many of the passengers of the “speeding” vehicles stood together outside the cell sharing stories with her and each other. When you actively listen and try and understand people you get so much more out.
- Problem solving – The problem (being arrested) could have been solved if I grabbed the early opportunity to pay a bribe. I was not prepared to go that route. “Nothing is what it seems” was playing in my mind and I will have to be more pragmatic in future when dealing with authority. The reality is that there will always be a better way to do things.
- Negotiation – The opportunity to negotiate did briefly present itself with the traffic police but it also passed very quickly. I have to become more street smart. Sometimes you have to take your punishment and then move on.
- Customer service – The officers were not open to any further conversations and they did not share much. I had to rely on Kenyans to keep me in the loop with the next steps. The lesson for me is to in future find a buddy for similar situations as it will help me navigate better in an uncertain world. A buddy is such an important ally in life.
- Dedication – The most dedicated person was probably my wife who tried hard to get me out of the predicament. An overzealous (“dedication on another level”) cell guard was acting with impunity and he even gave some youngsters lashings as they were not allowed to smoke in the cell. The screaming and lashings took place in front of all of us. My buddy the pastor helped put many things in perspective for me.
- Culture – The way things are done within the police and judicial system seemed very autocratic and heavy handed. This was different to the broader culture that I came across – the values, beliefs and behavior of most people was consistent with the following views. The Kenyans have a unique openness to share tough stories with a smile, they are very friendly and helpful. This very much confirms my many great interactions with the people of Kenya as well as in the neighboring countries during the few years I spent there. People are very amicable, innovative, supportive and proud of their countries.
- Feelings – It is always a good thing to consider your feelings, to be aware of them and to manage them as best you can. I did run through some feelings in my head like happy, embarrassed, anxious and anger. The ones that stood out were that I was nervous, cautious and later thankful, trusting and appreciative of the pastor and the people that made the jail time bearable.
‘Nothing is what it seems’
By starting to immerse myself in the local culture and experiencing life with Kenyans from all walks of life it quickly placed me in a very positive and accepting way with the leadership and the teams that I worked with in East Africa. To get to grips with the issues in an office and within a society you have to spend quality time in the environment.
There is an approach that should not be encouraged – the seagull approach.
This is where the bosses fly into an office for a couple of meetings, SHOUTING on everyone (different scenario as you can imagine with birds) and then fly out again as quickly as they can.
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