Understanding, American Exceptionalism, White Privilege, and Integrity:

Living Cross-Culturally in East Africa

By David Zarembka

While this essay covers the specific aspects of my 53 years of interacting with East Africans, I think that it has a much larger context on how Americans (and other foreigners) should interact with Africans for a mutually beneficial, respectful relationship. When I made my first tour as AGLI Coordinator to East Africa in January 1999, David Niyonzima, then General Secretary of Burundi Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers), commented to me, “A partnership between Americans and Burundian means that the Americans tell the Burundians what to do.” During my years interacting with Africans, I tried my best not to do this.

 There is a growing criticism by Africans of aid, assistance, and “cooperation” with wealthier nations, organizations, and people. This is criticized for being ineffective, expensive, primarily for the benefit of the donors, leads to dependency, increases inequality as only certain “favored” Africans benefit, and allows foreigners to make decisions that African ought to make themselves. This is substantiated by the fact that more than fifty years after the independence of most of the sub-Saharan countries in the 1960s, this part of Africa, rather than developing, is still mired in poverty; inadequate education, health care, and other basics of a decent life; corruption; and civil conflict brought on by massive inequality. In the United States, one never hears of these concerns on donor aid because they would attack the fundraising of non-government organizations involved with Africa. To read the African side of this see Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo, which “unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth.”

This essay gives my understanding of the basics needed for a mutually respectful relationship between Africans and Americans and their respective organizations.

In 1964 when I was a student at Harvard University I took a year off to teach Rwandan refugees in a remote area of Tanzania for a student-led organization called Project Tanganyika (as Tanzania was then called). One of my objectives was to leave the American ivory tower and meet and interact with others who were culturally and socially entirely different. I wanted to study the similarities of all humanity and how customs and culture impact whatever differences people have. I learned that all people are the same in their basic values, that is, as human beings. On the other hand, culture, customs, habits, beliefs, and values can vary enormously. How does a person who visits or lives in other cultures – in particular, for this report, East African cultures – adapt, fit in, and thrive? What attitudes are needed to keep from being “the ugly America” on one extreme or “going native” on the other.

I find wisdom in this quote from John Woolman (original Journal of John Woolman, page 143): It is good for thee to dwell deep, that thou mayest feel and understand the spirits of people. The first point is the words “dwell deep.” This implies that one must be more than a tourist observing the exterior manifestations of another culture. Rather one needs to observe the underlying beliefs and values. Notice that Woolman does not say “know” but rather “feel and understand.” Too often we want to “know” all the facts of a new place and that may well be useful, but this does not lead to adequate understanding. How does one “feel” about a new culture? One needs to “feel” comfortable and at ease which means to be non-judgmental. Lastly it is the “spirits of people” that one needs to “feel and understand.” How can this be done? Woolman actually was making this observation while he was visiting slaveholders who he was trying to convince to free their slaves and the slaves themselves whom he quietly paid for the services they provided for him.

In my own experiences and my observations of many visitors to East Africa, I have developed the following points: Understanding, American exceptionalism, white privilege, and integrity.

Understanding: It is necessary to ask local people many questions to try to understand the local customs and then to understand how they fit into the culture. Most important in this exercise is to listen openly to the answers that are given, remember and assess them. Too many westerners, I have noticed, ask the questions, but then don’t hear or remember the answers as they want to place them into the mind-set that they have brought from their American home culture. There is a major difference between “know” and “understand.”

There is the fact that the same English words don’t always mean the same thing. For example, an orphan means a child who has had one parent die. A child with both parents dead is called in Kenya a “double orphan.” To “volunteer” means not to do something for free but to be underpaid as in an internship in the United States.

Take the case of polygamy which is legal and common in East Africa. While it is easy to know how it exists, to understand why men and women inter into polygamous relationships is a much more difficult undertaking and takes patience without being judgmental. Again the meaning of the same word “polygamy” is different so that Africans think that Americans are polygamists even when the deny this. One of my Kenyan relatives is the second wife of her husband. Yet her husband’s first wife deserted him and their three children which my relative helped raise.  But since there is no divorce this is considered polygamy and therefore she is unable to hold any position of responsibility in the Quaker Church as the Quaker American missionaries used the American definition of a monogamous marriage. Since I was married and divorced before I married Gladys, Kenyans consider me a polygamist.

To fit in, to thrive in this new culture, one needs to be not only non-judgmental, but also accepting of differences. My approach is that, if the Africans are doing something in a way that I might not be accustomed to, there is no reason why I can’t do so also. For example, here in Kenya if I want to give someone money, I must give it to them with my right hand since giving money with the left hand has the connotation of giving it begrudgingly. This is no big deal but originally difficult for me to remember because it was not a custom I followed.

2. American Exceptionalism: The basic premise of “American exceptionalism” is that American cultural/economic system is the best in the world, nothing can compare, and the world needs to become just like America. Moreover it is Americans themselves who know best and by their wealth and military might are in the superior position to advise everyone else how they should run their societies. And those poor folks elsewhere better listen or else.

American culture is extremely opinionated and believes in its superiority – American exceptionalism. If one wishes to examine this “deeply,” one realizes that it is based on racism – that White “western” culture, values, literature, laws, government, education, science, knowledge, and so on is above that of other societies. For Americans to strip themselves of this superiority complex is extremely difficult because Americans don’t even realize they have it. One of the possible benefits for an American to live in a foreign culture is to challenge these attitudes which have been unconsciously imbibed from the home culture. Some people, though, resist this introspection and view the foreigners as quaint, “primitive” (although most people now are too polite to use this word), exotic, and curiosities. Almost a million people come to visit Kenya each year, many of them to observe the spectacular wild animals which no longer exist in the “wild” in “civilized” Europe or America. How many of these people see the Kenyans themselves – particularly at the tourist hotspots where models are dressed and act in “traditional costume” – as exotic “animals” who are somewhat dangerous and should be observed cautiously from afar?

One example of American exceptionalism is the very popular charity work with micro-credit. The basic premise of this is the very American one that people are essentially selfish, “rugged” individualist autonomous people where the superior, hard-working person thrives. If one fails, it is that person’s character faults. Therefore mostly women are given small grants at high interest rates in order to set up a small one-person business. These recipients are given individual loans in a group so that the group can be responsible for any defaults.

This is not Kenyan female culture, but America capitalism transported. Women here do not see themselves as autonomous individuals but as part of a larger group – extended family, clan, religion, tribe, and so on. This is the ubuntu philosophy of “I am because we are and we are because I am.” An African woman knows how vulnerable she is – she can get sick, her children can get sick, drought, invasion by locust (which hasn’t happened recently but people can remember it in the past), and so many other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can occur. To protect herself from all of these possibilities she does things in groups where the members will help and be helped thorough any misfortune with no adding up of the costs in time or money. Social security is not payment from the government, but mutual relationships with others.

Since I first because interested in Africa in the 1960s I have read western economists and development experts, who, time after time, comment that this custom of mutual support keeps Africa from becoming prosperous as the successful person has to share his or her success with everyone else. According to these experts this promotes dependency and laziness. These experts ignore that this leads in the US to poverty; high homicide, suicide, incarceration rates; inequality; alienation; and so on. Yet this is what is promoted to a society which survives on the mutual help and protection that people always give to each other. In marriage, in death, and in times of need, people come together to support each other, contributing what they can to the need and enjoying the ceremony and repast that they have contributed to often with 500 to 1000 or more other people. People do not depend upon their individual effort but the solidarity that comes with being part of a close community.

A person has to “dwell deep” to understand and appreciate how this mutual cooperation makes African society function. Importing the American system is perhaps the best way of bringing misery to African societies as the current system will be destroyed and replaced with individualist poverty and inequality. Think about this: Kenyans living overseas send home almost $2 billion per year to support their family members. This is about four times the amount Kenya receives in foreign aid, the highest foreign exchange earner in Kenya, and up to 5% of the country’s income. Gladys, my wife, did this for 2 years in Zambia, 3 in Pakistan, and 12 in the United States. Maria, our daughter-in-law, is now in Jordan doing the same and for our share we are taking care of Brian, her 4 year old son. Kenya has no need for American exceptionalism.

Here is a prime example of American exceptionalism in action. When there was embezzlement in one of the AGLI programs, an audit was conducted which indicated that major embezzlement of funds occurred. The then assistant treasurer (now treasurer) of Friends Peace Teams made the following comment: The audit itself is also not up to the standards used in the US, but good enough to indicate the lack of controls and lack of good accounting and processes.  Its not good enough to prove theft or fraud. Clearly he did not understand that fraudulent book-keeping is a handmaiden of embezzlement. Discounting the hard work that the auditors and others did in Africa was disrespectful. This total dismissal of the research and conclusions by Africans is a prime example of American exceptionalism. 

3. White Privilege: White privilege is a “disease” where those who have it are totally unaware of it, while at the same time it is obvious to those who are the “victims” of white privilege.

The first example is for an American visiting Kenya. The American can get on the airplane, fly to Nairobi, and at the airport buy a three-month visa for $50. A Kenyan, on the hand must pay $160 to apply for a US visa, present numerous documents including bank statements and proof of other assets, and so on. Except for the wealthy, most Kenyan are turned down for the visa and lose their $160. See my story “Visa” on this at http://davidzarembka.com/2017/03/08/429-the-visa-a-story-march-10-2017/.

My college friends, the late Alison Des Forges and Karen Worth, who convinced me to take a year off in 1964-65 to teach Rwandan refugees in northwestern Tanzania, told me the following story: The previous summer they had taught at one of the Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania holding thousands of Rwandan refugees. They lived in a tent for three months. When they reported on their experiences to Americans, a common response was “You were there all by yourselves!” as if the thousands of Rwandan they lived with did not exist. Fifty-four years have passed by but the attitude continues. The media reports at length on anything happening or affecting a White country, but ignores most of what is happening in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, from the media would you know that the country with the highest number of people displaced by fighting in 2016 was not Syria and Iraq who were fleeing to Europe, but Black people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

This has been an issue with volunteers that AGLI has sent to East Africa. As a result the first guideline that these volunteers must agree to is “Respect and follow directions of the African leaders supervising your placement.” This would not be necessary unless some Westerners are unwilling to work under the leadership of Africans.

Here is another example. During a work camp in Burundi before cell phones were common there, on the plane flight work campers met the football (soccer) team from Burkina Faso traveling to play against a Burundian team. Some of the American work campers decided that they wanted to stay an extra day in Bujumbura in order to go to the game, while the Burundians upcountry waited for them to come with a typical hospitable welcome for the visitors – children waiting to drum, dance, and sing, dignitaries to welcome them, and food. They waited in vain. How rude.

Another indication of white privilege is in a poor society to flaunt money and what it can buy – all kinds of electronic gadgets in particular. The converse is to bring worn-out, dirty clothes, expired medicines, and other “junk” to give to the poor benighted Africans. Another aspect is to give money to “favorite” Africans that snuggle up to con the American.

When I first became interested in African in the 1960s, I dealt with one American who said, “Africans cannot think in the abstract.” The White American doctor who gave my group medical advice before we left for Tanzania in 1964 told us never to shake hands with an African since we might get worms because the Africans never wash their hands. While few Americans would say anything so obviously racist these days, more subtle ways show that this attitude still persists. My successor as AGLI coordinator is a Rwandan. He needed to write a reply to a sensitive issue. He did this very well and his reply was accepted. He then was quite concerned when some White Americans claimed that I wrote the reply. Anyone who read the reply could see that it was not my style of writing, but his. Those who claimed that I wrote it could only make this conclusion because they assumed that a Black African was not capable of such a fine reply so it must have been written by a White American. By the way this is only one of a number of put-downs and disrespect that my African successor has had to endure from White Americans.

I once read a funding proposal in Burundi where the one White expatriate person received more compensation in salary and benefits than the total of the remaining seven Burundian employees. I have known Americans who get well-paid consultations in Africa, bank the surpluses, and then take extensive months-long vacations to explore the continent.

The important concept here is that there is no equality as human beings, but that White folks are special and expect to be treated as such. White privilege is so pervasive and acceptable that it is a mirage to Americans. 

4. Integrity: The most difficult aspect of thriving in a foreign culture is to keep one’s own integrity. This is crucial. When a person or organization fails in integrity, he/she or it is doing a great disservice to Africa. Let me start with some minor examples and move towards larger ones.

Very often westerners in East Africa when buying something will pay two, three, or even more than the real price. They rationalize this overpayment by first calculating it in the home country currency and realizing that it is a modest amount of money. Then it is further rationalized by saying that the Africans are poor and need the extra money anyway. Africans who see this happening are appalled. They don’t like to see their guests being ripped off. Why should some shyster benefit from the foreigner when those “lost” funds could be spent so much more fruitfully in other ways? It is very easy to ask an African to buy what you want at the “real” price or, what I often do, is ask the Africans what the correct price of something is and then only agree to the transaction when the “price is right.”

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Musoma district of Tanzania, there was an agricultural research station nearby run by a very competent Australian. He grew acres and acres of cotton, the local cash crop, and got an extremely high yield. He hired the local people to pick the cotton and he carefully determined how much someone should be able to pick per day and what was a fair daily wage. He determined that a picker should get then 50 Tanzanian cents per pound of cotton. This is what he paid. Unfortunately the going rate for Tanzania farmers was 10 Tanzanian cents per pound. The local pickers then demanded 50 cents per pound from the Tanzanian growers, but at that rate local farmers were then not be able to make any money growing cotton – they might even make a loss. The result was that the local people stopped growing cotton.

The rule here is that a visitor and a foreign person/organization has no right to upset the local balance. Integrity implies that a person/organization must apply the same expectation and rules that he/she/it would do in the home country. In particular East Africans should be expected to be honest and trustworthy including in financial matter. If there is dishonesty, embezzlement, or fraud then the African must be treated just the same as in the home country. Perpetrators, whether people or organizations, cannot be “let off the hook” because they are locals, because they are poor, because “that’s the way Africa is” (note the racism behind this attitude), or any other excuse that keeps the donor-foreigner from confronting the fraud.

When funds are given for a project, it is necessary that proper accountability is received for how the funds were spent according to the objectives of the grant and the budget. Too often, when funds are embezzled, westerners fail to pursue the transgressor and demand restitution.

Theft of funds, misuse of funds is one of the major roots of violence. In the peacemaking work I am involved in, the pursuit of ill-gotten wealth is one of the major motivating factors for election violence since the “winners” can acquire much legal and illegal financial gain. When foreigners excuse, give impunity to those who embezzle funds for their own benefit they are complicit in the violence. When this does happen it is incumbent on those foreigners giving the funds to demand restitution including taking court action if necessary. This is integrity. If the foreigner does not have this “integrity” then he/she is doing a disservice to Africa and would be better off not sending funds to Africa.


In my over 50 years of working on Africa, I have had to suffer through American prejudice against Africa and Africans. Here are present day examples. Sarah Palin’s “Africa is a country.” “Visit my cousin who lives in Nigeria. Where in Nigeria? I don’t know.” Africans are great at singing and dancing, but with little intellectual capacity. The lure of Africa is its wild animals. Its people are exotic, to be seen as with the wild animals, as dangerous and to be kept at an arm’s length. Long discussions by American talking to Africans about how much better things are done in the US including lots of advice on how Africans could do things so much better.

I have met many Americans who have told me point-blank that they can’t visit Africa. This is due to the fear of Black people, violence, disease, primitive living conditions, and other aspects from the negative image of Africa that is the zeitgeist in America.

Most of the time when I am in a position to confront these attitudes, I respond as best I can. Nonetheless my responses are sometimes not appreciated. At times I have received attacks on my character for exposing the racial superiority that many Americans have. I once gave a talk at Baltimore Yearly Meeting where I asked if the members of the audience could go to visit Kenyan Quakers and consider them “family” as my Kenyan wife, Gladys, did with the Quakers she met at Bethesda Meeting outside of Washington, DC. I was told that my comment “was not well received.”

I expect that some Americans are going to be upset with what I have written in this Report from Kenya and will respond by attacking me personally. I like the expression that Quakers have made famous, “Speak truth to power.”


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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region. He is an analyst on eastern Africa for TVC News in Lagos, Nigeria.


David Zarembka

Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC)

P. O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya
Phone in Kenya: 254 (0)726 590 783, in US: 240/813-0748
Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com/

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com