I was a fat kid growing up. I wasn’t obese, but I wasn’t slim either. I remember I weighed 56kgs when I turned 10 years old. And I hated any sports that required me to run, meaning pretty much all ball games except baseball, and tennis a little bit. Although I did (and loved) Karate, (I was a green belt when I stopped aged ten. It was when we moved back to Burundi from Kenya. I tried to resume when I was about twelve or thirteen but the training at the club I was in was too intense. It was like we were training to be Samurais or something. Mxim)… Anyway, so although I did and loved Karate, I was quite “soft” and hated anything violent. I still do. Arguments and foul language make me cringe. As a kid, I never understood the point of games like Kanyama (the kid who made the stick planted in a little mount of sand drop, had to run to a designated area while dodging the slaps of other kids). Mbo, I also wasn’t a fast runner (remember I was heavy), so the odds of enjoying those games were pretty low for me. Haha!
Being fat, soft and clumsy at popular sports made me look weak. To make matters worse, as a teenager I didn’t drink nor smoke, and my strict parents weren’t very accommodating as far as going out was concerned. The introvert that I was however didn’t mind being a stay-at-home kid. I was only bothered when my peers made fun of my “kwugaranwa”. Mais bon…
My life wasn’t hell though. Some things like fluency in English and French, pretty good drawing skills, and a few cool toys and gadgets gave me a cool edge. But I had problems being taken seriously by the other kids. I always hoped that the situation would change when I became an adult, but hey, I’m twenty-seven today and I don’t see that much change at all; but I’m probably exaggerating.
One of the things that don’t encourage people to take me seriously is… my looks. I look like a teenager. Just three days ago somebody told me they thought I was twenty. Ibaze. But hey, everyone in my family looks younger than their age (everybody thinks my mum is my sister), so I’ve told myself I’m genetically programmed to look younger and I’ve gotten over it. But I tried a lot of things to look older ey! Different haircuts, dressing formal (note: travelling in a suit earns you notably better services than travelling in jeans or shorts and a T-Shirt), growing a beard… Sans succès. Although someone who recently saw a photo of me when I started working told me a few extra kilos make me look older.
I know I probably sound sensitive and dramatic, but being taken seriously is a big deal for a twenty-something young man who’s trying to become somebody in the professional world. When you’re dismissed because of how you look and not what you can do, it hurts.
But thank God there are some reasonable people out there, like the folks who believed in me and my capacities they gave me the job I’ve been doing for almost five years now.
I remember in my first year at work, I got sent to a regional “experts” meeting. We had to review and amend a regional Technical document, so there were a lot of discussions and negotiations to be done. It was also Burundi’s turn to Chair East African Community meetings that year. When my boss assigned me on the assignment, he also assigned another person who was higher ranking than I, hence was going to Chair the meeting. But at the last minute, she couldn’t make it and so I got pushed to the front of the scene.
You should have seen the looks on the other delegates’ faces when I walked into the room and they realised I wasn’t the IT guy (classic), but the Chairperson. These are folks who are as old as my parents, some older. Add that to the fact that Burundi isn’t taken very seriously within the Community…
During the first tea break on the first day, I stepped outside the room and cried. Sérieux. Okay, not sobbing-crying but I was so frustrated by what had happened that tears started flowing down my face. The people were being impossible! Even the facilitators from the EAC Secretariat, who are supposed to assist the Chairperson, were acting like I didn’t exist! I couldn’t even make a point as the representative of Burundi, and let alone as the Chairperson. So I cried and prayed to God to fix it…
But then I realised… Jo! What the f*? Why would I expect anybody to make the job easier for me? I mean, if I were these people, I probably wouldn’t have taken me (as in the actual me) seriously. A kid? If I were to leave the meeting with any dignity, I would have to earn it! I walked back into the room like, sh*t about to get dooowwwnn!
After a few bangs on the table and speaking a little bit louder when reminding the members that (amongst other things) they had to speak through the Chair, by the end of the day I had gathered enough confidence (and respect) to make people work overtime to finish their work, and I even made some redo theirs. By the end of the week I was the kid (youngest Chairperson in the history of the East African Community, mind you) who was being congratulated for his excellent leadership capacities. Not to brag, but…
So, what has this, and other relatively similar situations, taught me?
I have learnt that, to be taken seriously, I need to get my sh*t together. I learnt to speak up, and I also learnt to work harder. Umugani wa Papa Olivia (Pope), you have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have!
It’s clear that there are some things that are likely be held against me (aha nababwiye only about my looks. I didn’t say anything about being “umwana wo mu gisagara” for example). Isi niko imeze, nikimenyamenya I also sometimes single out people based on senseless criteria. Everybody is guilty of bias.
Another thing I learnt about being a subject of bias is that it’s not always a bad thing. When you manage to prove you’re opposite of what’s expected from you (not much), it gives you an… edge. These days I get excited when I get to tell someone who thinks I’m in high school that I actually graduated from University six years ago and have been working. I like to skip telling them how old I really am, kugira ntibumve ko nshaje. I really haven’t done much for a person my age. I know folks who are two three years younger than me but own businesses, or are managers in international organisations, and make five times more money than I do a month. Je suis vraiment petit.
Another thing I learnt about bias is that it makes getting away with strategic incompetence so so easy! For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s basically pretending that you can’t do something so that you don’t have to do it. When you’re facing people whose initial assumption is that you’re incapable, you can just sit there, look lost and act like you have no idea what’s going on. Nobody will bother you and nobody will judge you, since their expectations were already down anyway. It’s a win situation really!