In the long echoing corridor, a man leans his bicycle against the wall. He does it gently, like he’s afraid to bruise it. Like you would lay an infant in its cot. It’s one of those waif, skeleton bicycles with no carriers at the back. The man himself is a mirror of his bicycle, svelte and with the kind of chin that makes him look like he spends his days trying to figure out complex formulas. He pats the saddle as if to say, “I will be back, baby. Don’t speak to strangers.” I hold the door open for him and tell him, “Ladies and children, first.” We laugh as we spill into the room to join three other men gathered at a table against the wall. Large windows overlook a small garden in the next compound where a plastic red horse, the type that rocks back and forth, lies abandoned on its side like a war relic.
Later we sit in a semi-circle like in those Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in the movies where one guy doesn’t talk much, just sips coffee from a styrofoam cup stewing in the demonry that followed him from Iraq, staring forlornly at his boots. A man – let’s call him Fox – says, “Gentlemen, welcome, my name is Fox, some people call me Foxy, but Fox will do. I’m here with my colleague, Rainbow.” (Not her real name). I have chosen to name the lady Rainbow because she’s wearing a yellow coat, the tight-fitting type that doesn’t go all the way to the waist. It has these buttons that seem to change colour when she shifts on her seat. Rainbow smiles at us bashfully.
“There are more drinks and some finger foods at the table there,” Fox continues, “please help yourselves. Like the email mentioned, we want this session to be as organic and unhindered.”
The men in the room were picked based on age, sex, professions and marital status. They are here to talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. I’m here as a fly on the wall. The first guy is in his early 20s, so fresh out of university we could smell the coursework off him. We will call him The Gram. There is a guy in his 30s who works in IT, we will call him A Guy. There is a entrepreneur and en employer of 16 pax, in his 40s, perhaps a few years older than me. He looks important. Or he feels important. He’s a father of two. We will call him Fadhe. There is the bike guy, who looks like he is in his 30s as well, with a newish-looking wedding band and expecting a baby. We will call him Bike Guy. Then there is me- I’m not expecting a baby, you will call me Chocolate Man.
Fox and Rainbow are from a development organisation which don’t want me to mention their name to avoid bias. My job is simple; listen to the conversation in the room and write about it. I’m also welcome to have a drink, which I have poured, like the rest.
There is an opening remark by Fox who invites Rainbow to say “something small.” She promises not to interject as this is a man’s forum. She’s armed with a notepad and a pink-ish pen which I bet she doesn’t call pink but magenta. After we have all introduced ourselves Fox says, “Gentlemen, what is sexual harassment?” I cringe because it sounds very high school-ish: Class, who can tell us anything about Nomenclature?
There is always that moment at the beginning of such sessions when nobody wants to be the one who speaks up first. There is shifting in chairs, crossing of legs, hard stares at walls, clearing of throats. Rainbow looks at us with an encouraging smile, as if to say, “It’s okay, gentlemen, there are no wrong answers.”
When nobody says anything, he says. “Okay, let me make this simple. I will give you a scenario.”
You and a female colleague go for work in Addis. You arrive in a cab that smells of coffee and check-in. You agree to meet up for dinner in the restaurant in an hour after you have freshened up. In your room you remove your shoes and log onto wifi. You then take a shower, throw on a clean shirt and meet up for for dinner downstairs. She’s wearing a short black dress. After dinner you suggest you catch a polite drink at the bar. She says sawa. You order a vodka, she orders Baileys with crushed ice. You tell her, “I have never seen you in this dress before.” She chuckles and asks, “Do you know all my dresses? Anyway, it’s not something I’d wear to the office.” You order another round. After her second drink she says she’s calling it a night. You call for the bill and because you are a gentleman you charge the drinks to your room. Riding the lift up you look at her lazily. She actually looks good. She has on pink flat shoes with two of her toes peeking out at the rounded end. She’s on the 6th floor, you are on the 8th floor. As the lifts pass the 5th floor you tell her, “Why don’t you come to my room, we can order more drinks and chill for a bit, maybe watch something”
She seems taken aback by that invitation. You glance at your watch, “It’s still mapema.”
She says. “Naah, I’m beat. I think I will just turn in.”
“Oh come on, just one drink. The night is still a virgin.” (You are that guy who still uses that expression – the only one person in 2018.)
“I’d rather not. I’m really knackered,” she says.
Sixth floor! The computerised Chinese voice of the lift announces ominously marking the death of your flaccid nightcap pitch. The door opens into a corridor with sky blue carpet.
“Okay, goodnight!” she says cheerily, stepping out. You ride up to your floor with the sweet smell of her perfume. In your room you switch on the TV and sit at the edge of your bed with the telephone in your hand. She picks on the second ring. “Your phone is off,” you say, like you are her father. She says she always switches off her phone when going to bed. You say, “Are you sure you don’t want to come up for one?” She laughs drily. “Yeah, Paul [It’s always a Paul, isn’t it?]. You sleep well, let’s talk tomorrow.”
You watch a bit of TV but it’s too early so you go down to the bar and drink alone until 11pm, then you take the lift and the Chinese lady says, “Sixth floor”, where you get off and walk to door 64 and knock. She opens frazzled and bleary-eyed. One hand is clutching her white bathrobe in a bunch at the chest. No shoes. Her toes look like strawberries. “Imagine I couldn’t sleep, so I had to go have one drink,” you say. She stares at you with that look of Okay, and how does that mean you are now at my door? “Can I come in?” you ask and she sighs and says evenly, “Paul, please. We are not going to roll like this, are we?”
“Roll like what?” you ask defensively. You smell like Boris Vladislav.
“This,” she says, pointing at you with her chin, not letting go of the bathrobe. “We are not going to have a problem, are we?”
“Come on, just for a minute,” you say in what you imagine is a sweet innocent voice, the type that lost herdsmen use to ask for directions.
“You woke me up, now I’m going back to sleep. Goodnight.”
You gently place your open palm against her door to stop her from closing it.
“Why are you like this?” you ask.
She closes the door leaving you standing there with your hard-on.
Back in the room Fox asks, “Would you consider that sexual harassment?”
Fathe says. “I haven’t touched her, so it’s not.” Rainbow scribbles something in her diary.
A Guy says, “No, he’s just a drunk nuisance.”
The Gram says, “No, he was just being drunk. He wanted company.”
The Bike Guy says, “Well,” we wait expectantly as he finishes chewing his groundnuts. “I think he was out of order but he wasn’t exactly harassing her sexually.”
Rainbow writes down something.
Fox continues, “So what would he have to do before it becomes sexual harassment?”
Oooh, a spanner in the works! Rainbow smiles. A DM gets into my Instagram; someone has sent me pictures of some men’s sweaters and is inquiring if I know where she can get one for her boyfriend. Jesus. I don’t even know where my own sweaters are.
“I think had he forced himself inside her room and refused to leave that would have been sexual harassment,” A Guy says. “Yes,” Bike Guy adds, “if she feared for her safety, you know, like she feared this guy might rape her or something then that would have been sexual harassment.” A small discussion ensues after Fox says that it is actually sexual harassment because she had said no from the word go. (I hate that expression, ati word go). And the act of him blocking her from closing the door can be seen as an “act of aggression.” (Sounds like something America would say in reference to Russia).
A heated discussion gets underway when A Guy says, “Talking of which, Fox. Let me ask you. In my work place we have a common cafeteria in the building where guys have lunch. So let’s say a chick is passing by a table where we – a bunch of men – are seated and she has on a dress and hips for days. If one of us says, “mmmm mmm mmm” loud enough for her to hear, is that sexual harassment?”
“Is she offended?” Fox asks, “Because if she is, then that could be sexual harassment, but if she isn’t then you are safe.”
“But what if then we don’t say anything. We just stop talking as she passes our table, and we just stare at her ass. Is that also objectifying her?”
“No,” Fox says.
“So, what, we can’t even appreciate women no more? We only have to appreciate their brains?” The Gram asks chuckling.
“If you are going to lewd about it, you shouldn’t’” Fox says. “Listen, say a colleague has nice breasts, right? You know, full breasts and she wears this top that just brings them out even more. If you have to complement her, tell her that she has a nice top, not that she has nice breasts. Complete the dress, never the legs because legs are personal.”
“So a female colleague, telling you that she likes your beard is sexual harassment?”
“Because a beard is as personal as the legs.” Fadhe says. “At least mine are!”
We laugh. Fadhe has a small shrub of beard. It’s like when a 5 year old pulls back his sleeve and flexes his biceps and says he is strong.
“If she says, she would love to stroke it, it is sexual harassment.” he says.
Fox says, “Sexual harassment is determined by the receiver not the giver, offense is determined by the receiver,not the person offering it. When you say, ‘I looked but I didn’t intend for her to feel uncomfortable it doesn’t count.”
He points out things that can amount to sexual harassment; unwelcome groping or touching in the office is sexual harassment. So is drawing images and pictures of a sexual nature to show to a woman – or to a man. Sending sexy emails that are sexual in nature. The Gram asked, what that is and Fox said writing an email like this.
Btw, I heard that you will be moving to the Tanzania office. I will be so sad. Maybe you should invite me to come visit you some time.
Hi. Yes, I’m moving end of next month. Why would you be sad, it’s not like you ever really spoke to me while here. Unless you will be sad you won’t be helping yourself to my lunch. 🙂
With Kind regards
“Many seek good nights and lose good days.” [She’s one of those people with quotes in their signatures]
I never quite spoke to you but I always admired you. You have great legs by the way, and a great figure. Do you know often I’d watch you going to fetch tea in the kitchen and wonder what colour of panties you had on.
That is sexual harassment.
So does, phoning the girl up in operations and telling her filthy things that you want to do with her small finger. Sending gifts of sexual nature is also part of it. [handcuffs, leather whips, dildos, naked picture of you leaning against the fridge]. Speaking to a woman’s cleavage is sexual harassment, because it makes them feel a certain way that isn’t sexy. Snapping the band of the intern’s showing bra is also a sexual harrassment if she doesn’t enjoy it. Not everything sexy is an invitation.
There is a short break when Fadhe and Bike Guy requests to have a small cigarette smoke. [My editor -Linda – thought there was a joke in that statement]
Later, Fox says that there are different types of touching. If you place a hand around a colleague’s shoulder while showing her something, and you guys are cool like that, it’s fine. If you hold her hand, that is also cool. But certain acts like rubbing someone’s back in a way that makes them uncomfortable is sexual harassment. That caused a wave of debates. The room was confused about the line in the sand. The debate raged on, threatening to swallow Fox.
Rainbow, for the first time spoke up. She said, “May I, gentlemen?” We all turned to look at her in mild surprise, as if we had forgotten that she is a living breathing thing. She asked the room. “If you walked into your wife’s office or your girlfriend’s office and you found one of her colleagues touching her, what kind of touch would completely piss you off?”
The room stared at her, sure this was some sort of a trick question.
She continued, “Would you mind if you found his hand on her bum?” She looked around the room, “You know, just an innocent hand on her ass. What’s a hand on the ass amongst colleagues? Or his hand on her thigh? Or rubbing the small of her back? Or he was holding her from behind playfully, his hands encircled around her waist., would this be okay? I think that if another man shouldn’t do it for your woman, you shouldn’t do it to any woman.”
Having got our attention, she continued. “Imagine you give the chic in IT your phone to help you figure out how to stop a certain subscription that you haven’t been able to stop. Once she gets your phone, you find her going through your other apps; Whatsapp, FB, Bank and all that. How does that make you feel? Violated?” She smiled. I was starting to think that maybe she wasn’t doodling cartoons on her pad. “Think of a woman’s body like a phone with many apps. You don’t have access to all the apps and it’s only she who should give you that access.”
She mentions that persistently asking a colleague out is also sexual harassment. Asking her today and tomorrow and next month and when you run into her in the kitchen and at the parking and on email and on whatsapp and on calls. A Guy said, “Aii, how can that be harassment, that is working hard for something you want. Now men will have to sit on their hands and give up at first try? I think that is overboard.”
“If you ask her out for the first time and she says, not today, you can try again. But if she says no, first time and second time, surely, that is a no.” Fox says.
“Women have said no five times and one day they said, yes.” Fadhe said.
“Yes, but times have changed, Fadhe. Things work out differently now.” Fox says.
Fathe says, “I agree. Mwanaume ni effort.”
“What about us?” Fadhe asks. “What if a female colleague is on our case, hounding us with messages and touching us, isn’t that harrassment? Because it’s easy now for a woman at work who likes you and you don’t like say you sexually harassed her, to make you lose your job. Nobody is ever going to believe the man’s word over the woman’s word.”
“It is sexual harassment and companies should have a Sexual Harassment policy to protect their employees both female and male. They should also have Gender Committees that investigates and deliberates on both of these allegations,” Fox says, but the guys look at him like, “Are you kidding us? Gender Committee? It’s hard to set up funeral committees at work, let alone a gender one.”
He looks at his watch and holds his hand up. “Guys, let’s finish up. This might be all confusing sometimes; what is sexual harassment and what is not? I will give you an analogy that you should use as a guiding principle.”
He tells us something called The Tea Consent which replaces tea with sex. It’s basically makes it clear what yes means and what no means. Because I love my tea spicy with masala and ginger and shit, I will spice up the Tea Consent.
So a girl comes over to your house or your hotel room where you are staying for work. She sits on the edge of the chair, looking around getting her bearing. She has nice knees. You ask her if she would like a cup of tea. She says, “Oh yes, please, that would be very sweet of you. Thank you, Paul!”
So you make her a cup of tea. You make her the best tea she will ever drink, served in a mug with the words, “I go strong or I go home.” She sips it and looks at you with wide eyes and says, “Damn, I love it. Can I have another cup?” So you give her another strong cup.
Another scenario is you ask her if she wants a cup of tea but she says, “Uhm, I’m not sure. I had some juice earlier, so I’m kinda full.” You can make a cup or you can decide not to, but if you make her a cup, leave it next to her should she change her mind, which is not uncommon. Should they choose not to drink it, don’t make them drink it. Don’t bully them to drink it either. Don’t say, “Come on, I already made this tea, just drink it, let’s not waste good tea.” If they say no, don’t get pissed off. Don’t sulk. Don’t call them an Uber because they said no to your tea. Your tea is not the tea of life. Not everybody should drink your tea. You are not the tea god. If they don’t want your tea, then they don’t want your tea. It doesn’t make you a bad tea-maker. It just makes you a guy who offered tea and they didn’t want tea.
Sometimes she will want tea. So you go to the kitchen and make your best tea, pour it in your best cups and come back and lay it on these fancy-ass coasters you bought in Beiruit. But then she will look at your tea and say, “Uhm, I actually don’t want the tea anymore.” And you say, “Why the hell not? You said you wanted tea just moments ago!” She will make a sorry face and say, “ I know, but I kinda, don’t feel like tea anymore. I’m sorry.” Of course you have wasted your time making the damned tea and using your best cutlery and all this, yes and no is bloody annoying and why can’t she just make up her damn mind? But what to do, she is allowed to change her mind and now she has. Take away your tea.
Now let’s say they were excited about your tea. They talked about it all the way to your house or hotel or wherever it is that you make this magic tea of yours. You make the tea and when you come back to the living room with the tea on a silver platter (he-he, that sounded so dirty in my head) you find that she has blacked out. You are like, “Oh shit, I shouldn’t have let her drink that last mojito!” What do you do? What you don’t do is you don’t force the tea into her mouth. People who have blacked out can’t say whether they want the tea or not, so don’t make them drink the tea. Remove her shoes, put her legs up on the sofa and cover her with a duvet and let her sleep. No forcing people who are sleeping to drink tea. She might wake up and say, “Awww, you covered me with a duvet and removed my shoes? How sweet! Where is that tea of yours, bring it here hot.” In that case, give her the tea. But if she wakes up and says, “Oh I asked for tea before I blacked out? Ngai, I can’t have tea now, my head hurts, I feel horrible. Tea? I want to throw up.” Take away your your tea in the sink.
Let’s also say she had started drinking the tea but then since she also has five mojitos in her, she sort of blacked out in the middle of drinking the tea, don’t force her to finish the tea. Take the cup from them and let them sleep.
Now let’s say this chick had tea in your house last week and said she loved it. Or she has been having tea in your house for the past month or so but today she says she isn’t in the mood for tea or for those movies of yours where people shoot each other. Don’t make her tea. Put on a romantic movie where people walk in the rain and kiss under the glare of streetlamps. She might be in the mood for your tea later, or she might not. You will never know until she says it.
Sometimes women want tea, sometimes women don’t want tea. Sometimes they want the tea strong, sometimes they want it weak. Some like their tea in a small cup. Some will say, “Don’t you have a bigger mug?” Don’t catch feelings, just say, “Oh, it’s not the size of the mug but the experience of the mug.”
Okay, you get the thrust of it all.
We finished. I was slightly buzzed. Bike Guy decided to leave his bike on the corridor because it was late and he wasn’t in a position to cycle after the booze. I never got to see what Rainbow was writing in that secret notebook of hers. We will never know.