It’s the day after his fellow countryman Eliud Kipchoge set a new world record in the Berlin marathon and Levis Maina Nderitu (32) is very proud of him. “Absolutely,” he laughs from behind his hot chocolate with whipped cream. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” We’re sitting in a coffee bar near The Hague Central Station, because the legal capital is where Maina Nderitu has been living and studying for the past year.
Nderitu is a master student in Social Policy at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and got an Erasmus Scholarship – the Dreilinden scholarship – to do this. At the opening of Erasmus University’s academic year, he was a so-called ‘student in the spotlights’ and in that capacity gave a – at times rather emotional – speech about Workplace diversity and inclusion. He appears to be quite a cheery, talkative guy with a good idea what his goals are.
The only way out
Coming, as he says himself, from a humble background – his father was a police constable, now almost retired, his mum was a kitchen cleaner – he was the first of his family to go to university, getting an MBA in marketing. Meanwhile, both his two younger brothers and his sister have attended university, not a very common thing in Kenya.
“The truth of the matter is that not everybody gets this chance,” Nderitu recognises. “There are a lot of barriers to get access to higher education. I was lucky: I received support from an American NGO, called PATHWAYS Leadership for Progress. They paid for my bachelor. I then got a scholarship of the University of Nairobi for my master. So you could say that I set an example for the rest of my family, which made it slightly easier for them to go to university too. But most of all, it was my parent’s conviction that education is the only way out and the sacrifices they made to enable all four of us to study.”
Combine social aspects with business
In his work and studies, Nderitu focuses on the balance between the business-like atmosphere of companies and the social tenor at NGOs, particularly where the LGBT community is concerned. He therefore works for the Sullivan Reed Society, which works alongside HIVOS and Workplace Pride. “I want to combine the languages that both worlds speak,” he explains. “One mainly discusses social issues, like women’s rights or social justice, while the other tends to talk about things like return on investment and the race to the top.”
He continues: “I came to the Netherlands to study this combination of languages a bit more. But ISS is mainly teaching me more about the social components. Unfortunately I haven’t seen much of the business components. I discovered too late that I could have done that on campus in Rotterdam, but with only a few months to go, it’s a bit too late for that.”
His master thesis will address a phenomenon called ‘corporate pinkwashing’: the way companies present themselves as gay friendly. “Like ING who had their own vessel during the latest edition of the Canal Parade in Amsterdam – but what happens after that”? That appears to be a complex matter in many respects. For example, a company like Primark sells rainbow merchandise, but that merchandise is made by underpaid women in Bangladesh. And another aspect is – of course – whether true inclusion really exists on the work floor at companies who present themselves as gay friendly to the outside world.”
Coming from a country where homosexuality is still illegal (and can receive a fourteen year jail sentence), Nderitu is well aware that it requires a lot of courage to be open about one’s sexual preferences. “Only a very small minority of the LGBT community in Kenya are willing to reveal their sexual orientation, and the ones that do are often the mainstream activists,” he states. “So mainly it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation. You can only truly open up when you are with people you can really trust, within four walls.”
Personally, he would not reveal his sexual orientation, not out of fear, but because he doesn’t feel it should be important one way or another. “Besides, you don’t have to identify with the LGBT community to stand up for them,” he thinks. “We actually need more non-LGBT people who would do just that, because they probably have more impact on the process of accepting LGBT and reducing discrimination.”
So how come LGBT people still suffer from discrimination on the work floor, even though no one actually knows their sexual preferences. Nderitu is all too willing to explain, because he’s suffered from discrimination himself. “On the one hand, there’s what we call ‘self-disclosure’.
This is a big issue, not only in my home country but worldwide, so also in Europe and the Netherlands. Around 62 percent of students who came out during their university period go right back in when they start working. Suddenly they keep silent, mainly because they think it may negatively affect their career prospects. They’re afraid that colleagues will stop looking at them as just professionals when they disclose their orientation, and will add another label to them.”
He continues: “On the other hand, there is unconscious bias. We all want to work with people who look more or less like ourselves. If people don’t, they become ‘the other’. This bias exists with regard to weight, height, gender, skin colour, perceived sexual orientation, physical disability, you name it. Take me, for example. I’ve been discriminated against more than once because of my high-pitched voice.”
“In short, we all have a bias, but do we recognise it in ourselves and are we trying to reduce it? By the way, I don’t think immediate elimination is possible. One way to reduce bias in companies is to let a team do the recruiting of new employees rather than just one person. Of course this should be a diverse team.” In this respect Nderitu is convinced that quota for minorities can be a very useful instrument in the early stages of the process. “Because, let’s face it: the chances are that we’ll otherwise stay in the same cycle.”
In the spotlight
What he does with the Sullivan Reed Society is provide in-company training so that companies learn to treat every employee in the same way. “Of course it’s only a kick-start, because companies are not all that pro-active,” he knows. “But just having this conversation with them is progress.”
It’s his dedication to the good cause together with his intrinsic enthusiasm that made him decide to apply for the ‘student in the spotlight’ thing. “I hope I’ve been able to open a few eyes, because I really do believe in the work I do and I want to bring it to the attention of as many people as possible. Students can make a difference, you know. If they see a problem or a need in society, they can actually do something about it.”
Nderitu is quite clear about what he’s going to do when he completes his master thesis in December. “I’ll go back to Nairobi, try to find myself a place to live and pick up working for the Sullivan Reed Society again. That’s for the short term. I do consider myself a global citizen though. So if a chance opens up, I would gladly come and work in the Netherlands again. And I want to visit lots of countries I haven’t been to yet, so we’ll see. I’m very excited about what the next phase in my life will bring me.”