I once worked for a company that regularly sent me on missions to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both countries are in Africa and were considered high risk in terms of the rampant kidnappings of foreign nationals. It was company policy to have a robust security detail to visit these countries.
One year, my white colleague Fred and I traveled to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to set up a public health program. It was a three-day trip and the security company was charging us a fortune to escort us around the city.
Their mandate was to guard both Fred and me closely. Quite early on, I realized that I wasn’t getting the full service: they omitted to pick me up at the airport, they didn’t inspect my hotel room regularly and I wasn’t entitled to their regular check-in calls. I noticed that they spent most of their time closely guarding Fred and catering to his every whim. Whenever we got to a venue, they would escort him in first, make sure he was safe before coming to get me. Through their constant macro and microaggressions, it became clear to me that for them, my life was of lesser value.
Kinshasa has a lot of beautiful cafes and outdoor terraces, and one sunny afternoon, Fred and I decided to indulge in the local cuisine at one of these eateries. Our security guards immediately grew nervous.
“It’s a breach of protocol to eat outside, we are not able to assess and manage all risks in an outdoor environment”, they complained.
Fred looked downright annoyed.
“But we can’t always be locked in a dingy hotel. We also need to live a little. We are going to do this whether you agree or not,” he said defiantly.
The ex-Yugoslavian security guard who later confided to us that he had been a mercenary for most of his life, acquiesced, but his face registered concern.
We sat on the terrace people watching, enjoying the warm African sun and the sights, sounds, and scents of vibrant, cosmopolitan Kinshasa. It was mesmerizing. A neatly coiffed, beautiful, ebony-colored waitress came out to take our order — she smiled politely as we took forever to decide what to eat.
I spotted cassava leaves on the menu — a green leaf stew common to my native Sierra Leone. I immediately salivated at the thought of it, memories of my mother’s delicious cooking flooded my mind, and I quickly selected the dish with some rice. Fred took a more European dish. He was profusely sweating by the time the waitress brought us our cold drinks — he was bright crimson-red, overheating, and looked resolutely out of place.
All of a sudden, a slim tiny hand quickly reached across the table and tried to snatch Fred’s money bag. It all happened so fast. In a matter of seconds, the guards bundled up Fred and rushed him to the Toyota Landcruiser. They were gone in a flash.
It took me a while to realize what had happened. I was sitting there alone at the table, no guards, no protection, I was left to fend for my own. I sought refuge inside the restaurant and started to wonder how I would return to the hotel. The waitress brought me some tea and expressed sympathy at what had happened.
I’m sorry, this happens a lot around here — especially if you are with foreigners. It’s just petty theft, there’s nothing to worry about, those boys aren’t dangerous, she said.
I looked at her and nodded — her expressions were soothing, reassuring. As I sat there, I felt a sense of embarrassment. I had come in with three able-bodied men and they had all abandoned me like the cowards that they were. I felt betrayed.
Around 10 minutes later, the mercenary appeared.
I’m here to get you, let’s go, it’s dangerous to stay here.
I eyed him incredulously: But you just left me here, don’t you consider that dangerous?
“Yes but you are not the priority. Whenever there is a risk, we must protect the high-value person first, all others are secondary,” he said sternly.
I stared at him, feeling the full force of his words like a blow, and then the realization set in. They had been given instructions by my employer, that my life was of lesser value. Fred’s life or the life of the white man had more value than my black life. Fred’s life mattered more.
I returned to the hotel that evening, nursing my anxiety with a glass of white wine, trying to keep it all together. I had never felt so de-valued in my life. I realized then and there that if a hard life-saving choice had had to be made, the company would favor Fred’s white life over mine. It was a sobering realization. At the time, I was the sole breadwinner of my family. I had a husband and two young children to support and yet my life was so easily disposable.
On my flight back, I pondered what may have happened if the situation had been more serious. What if it had been a kidnapping instead? What would have happened to me? Would they have paid the ransom?
I, later on, understood that security companies are always instructed to protect the higher-value asset or more senior employee first. Fred was indeed more senior, but the reality is that the security company never provided the full service to me from the start.
My life was not a priority to them — especially when they forgot to pick me up at the airport or didn’t inspect my hotel room. All throughout the trip, they made me feel — more than anyone has ever made me feel, that my black life didn’t matter — at least, not as much as the life of a white man.
I have since recovered from this traumatic event, but it taught me a lesson: to always keep in mind that regardless of what people would like you to believe, our lives are not all valued the same. Whenever I travel to high-risk countries, I carry that extra anxiety with me — what if something were to happen? I have learned to live with this dread, and now simply hope and pray for the best.
Thanks for reading my perspective.