VOICES FROM INSIDE THE SYSTEM

‘I Spent Much of My Career Listening to White Folks Complain About Africa and Africans’

Working in international aid, Stephanie Kimou was often the only African on staff at white-led institutions

Raksha Vasudevan
GEN
Published in
6 min readSep 1, 2020

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Photo treatment of a world map against a red and black background.
Photo illustration. Image source: caracterdesign/Getty Images

Voices From Inside the System is a GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism and inequity. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, and if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

Stephanie Kimou, 33, lives in Baltimore, where she teaches international affairs at Georgetown University and runs Pop Works Africa, a consulting firm that seeks to decolonize aid work by shifting power and resources to communities receiving aid. While 80% of aid workers are people of color — nationals of countries affected by natural disasters and war — the nonprofits employing them are still largely led by white people, who are paid four times more than local staff. Kimou spoke with journalist Raksha Vasudevan about how the aid system often fails the Black and Brown people it claims to help.

My family moved from Côte d’Ivoire when I was about four. Growing up in Maryland, the kids on my soccer team and teachers would be like, “Oh my god, you’re from Africa? Your people probably need so much. The PTA could do a clothing drive, because your mom said you’re going to Côte d’Ivoire this summer. We could send you home with some clothing.”

I remember being 12, the only Black girl on that damn Montgomery County soccer team and thinking what these white soccer moms are telling me was right. That’s the fucked-up thing about white supremacy: You don’t need to be white to perpetuate it. I started taking on definitions of what Africa needed, what Black people needed.

After grad school, I moved to Tanzania for my first real job in aid. It was supposed to be a homecoming: moving back to the continent and supporting sisters and brothers who looked like me. But at work, nobody looked like me. The person who started the…

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Raksha Vasudevan
GEN
Writer for

Economist & writer. Words in LA Times, NYLON, Outside, LitHub & more. Tweets @RakshaVasudevan