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“So far you have been working like an African”

by Abdi Barud
Sunday, May 1, 2016

It was some years ago, when I was on my final work placement in Weston - a small town in South West of England - that my white middle-aged-man supervisor told me that I was working like “an African”. He told me that I was lacking the energy and hunger necessary to pass the placement and meet all the learning requirements.

I was so deeply hurt by what I considered an ill-advised and offensive comment that, without any hesitation, I placed him on my list of racism suspects; the list was a long one, with most of my white colleagues on it for one reason or another; including a lady who told me that she had black friends and they all went to good universities. She must be a racist I concluded; why else would she be surprised or even mention black people’s educational attainment, she must think they are not intelligent enough.

One of my tutors was on the list as well because she always gave me harsh marks and I felt she was not particularly supportive; later I realised she was like that to everyone, including the white students. Another was on the list because he was a committed reader of Daily Mail, why else would he read such paper, which in my view, promoted intolerance and prejudice. A fellow student was on the list because she was a white South African and she made one or two negative statements against ANC and its former leader Nelson Mandela; I decided she must be a secret supporter of the apartheid regime that ANC fought with.

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Looking back, most of my colleagues probably were not racist, or event if they were, I had no sufficient evidence to reach a firm conclusion; one or two perhaps unintended and innocent remarks are not enough to call someone a racist.  Also, I now don’t believe my supervisor was a racist. Yes, no doubt he suffered from the usual misconception and “the single story” (Chimamanda Ngozi) about Africa. What would he know about Africa anyway? A continent of 54 countries, more than 1 billion people, thousands of languages spoken and a variety of socio-economic factors. From my recollection, he’d never visited Africa. I don’t recall any mention of books he read about Africa, and even if he did read some books, the writers of these would probably be white; and are often seen to tell African stories from their own narrative, misunderstanding and prejudice.

Now that I’m back in Africa, I cannot help but to think that, whilst he was wrong to generalise, he may have had a good point that we are Africans, and perhaps some of us are far too relaxed. Too relaxed for a continent that has so many problems, including abject poverty. I even noticed a cup of coffee takes much longer to be made in Africa than in Europe. Not because of a lack of facilities or machinery, but because productivity and efficiency don’t seem to be valued as a currency here. The issue is not about ability or resourcefulness, but attitude and whether we have the willingness and urgency to work harder. 

My supervisor knew I could have done better, although he chose his words poorly, he was trying to tell me; ‘pull your socks up, get your act together’.

My own country Somalia has many problems, but they are often swept under the carpet. One of these is an acute work ethic problem; a working day is 4 to 5 hours. This is a country that is supposed to be at war - many interconnected wars in fact. We should be at war to eradicate poverty, at war to achieve a peace and stability, at war to create jobs and opportunities, at war to achieve social reconciliation and trust among its people; at war to create an inclusive and just government system.  You would expect to see a strong sense of urgency in the face of these enormous challenges. Not at all. 

In the history of human development, has there ever been a country or continent that came out of the woods without hard work?  How did Japan rebuild itself after World War II, or Germany revive its economy after the same conflict? We all know the history of the industrial revolution - the single biggest economic transformation in the Western World, and how people were required to work long hours in harsh conditions. 

It was Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, who said: “There are no gains without pains”. I think he was right. No hard work means no development. If Somalia is to be a prosperous country, for starters, she needs to recognise this as a problem.  If the work ethic of Somali citizens is to be revived effectively, a complete cultural revolution will be indispensable. All institutions including: mosques, religious and community leaders, must play an active role in redefining the social norms and values, the problem now is that not working hard is not seen act of deviousness. Now it is the time to make a strong work ethic as an essential value for our society, not doing so means we are doomed to failure.

Abdi Barud is the Executive Director of the Global Somali Diaspora (GSD. He can be reached at
[email protected]

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