Racism at Home and Abroad: A Conversation Between Friends

July 27, 2020


Two long-time friends, one African-American and the other a U.S.-based Ugandan national, share their experiences of institutional racism on two continents and exchange ideas about how to handle racial bias in international development.

In a conversation recorded earlier this month, Jude Kearney, managing director and co-founder of Kearney Africa Legal Advisors LLC, and Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, Stop-Winlock’s Director of Transaction Advisory Services, spoke about their personal experiences with racism at home and abroad. Both Kearney and Nyirinkindi have worked in several African countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda. During this wide-ranging discussion, they explore how the protests in the U.S. are playing out in African nations and what the international development sector can do about its own racial bias.


Jude Kearney:
I think to the extent that it was possible to become closer to my African clients, we recognized the bond that we share because any one of them could have been George Floyd, as could I. And they all recognized that, and so they became consumed with what is going on in the U.S. All of us want to make sure that that could never happen again.

Jasmin Bauomy, IFC Insights (host): How do the protests for racial justice in the U.S. relate to African nations? That's what we'll be talking about today.

Who's “we”? That's me.  I'm Jasmin Bauomy. I'm your host and designated audio nerd at the International Finance Corporation. 

Today I'll be introducing you to two people who talk about this moment we're finding ourselves in and how this moment plays out globally and in Africa, in particular.

The two men you'll hear from have been friends for more than a decade. You heard Jude at the beginning. 

Kearney: I'm Jude Kearney, and I was born in 1957 in Gould, Arkansas, a little town south of Little Rock.

Bauomy: Jude is African-American, and he has his own law firm called Kearney Africa, LLC. But had you met Jude as a kid in segregated Arkansas in the sixties, you most likely wouldn't have guessed we'd find ourselves here today. 

Kearney: I was born into a family of sharecroppers. By the way, I didn't mention I'm one of 19 children.

Bauomy: Also, just a quick note. With all of us sitting in our home offices, you might hear the occasional email ping or dog bark or fan in the background. So please excuse that. 

Bauomy: Of course, the Amazon guy is ringing the bell right now. 

Bauomy: Jude's got quite the story. He ended up studying at Harvard and Stanford Law School. He lived in Nigeria and in South Africa.

Kearney: I had never been out of the country.

Bauomy: And he's worked for the Clinton Administration, which led him to work with countries in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe. But again, mostly in Africa. And during the time that he lived in South Africa, which was in the early 2000s, the company Jude worked at got involved in a Ugandan project.

And that's where he met Emmanuel. That's the second person you'll hear from today. 

Emmanuel Nyirinkindi: I am Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, and I'm actually from southwestern Uganda. I was born in 1964, so the early ‘60s. My dad was a medical assistant. My mom was a primary school teacher. They both worked in the capital city, Kampala.

And then by the age of 10, we left the country and went as refugees into neighboring Kenya. 

Bauomy: And just like Jude, if you had met 10-year-old Emmanuel back then, you could have easily thought the odds were stacked against him. 

However, today, Emmanuel is the Director of Transaction Advisory Services at IFC.

When it was safe for them again, Emmanuel's family returned from Kenya to Uganda. Uni, private sector work, public sector work, followed by an MBA in the U.S.—in Kansas to be precise—Emmanuel took his knowledge back home to Uganda, and that's where he met Jude. 

Kearney: I was, I was really struck by him. 

Bauomy: Both of them were working on the privatization of the energy sector there. They became good friends. 

Kearney:  He has a phenomenal sense of humor and also a phenomenal memory. 

Bauomy: And so when they parted ways, they rooted for each other’s success. Jude eventually started his own legal firm. 

Kearney: I've worked, especially, in Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Uganda, and currently I'm working in Nigeria and in Equatorial Guinea, and in South Sudan and in South Africa.

Bauomy: Jude's work has won him a bunch of accolades. He's got loads of stories. He's flown on a supersonic plane for work. He's won awards. Meanwhile, Emmanuel joined IFC in 2006 and there, he rose through the ranks. And so today, both of them are in Washington, DC, with adult children. 

Kearney:  I have a son and a daughter.

Nyirinkindi: I have three boys.

Bauomy: And together with us, both of them are finding themselves in this moment of racial justice protests, companies, CEOs, institutions and law enforcement grappling with, or being held to account for, institutionalized racism.

And so Emmanuel wanted to sit down and talk to his old friend Jude about, well, there's just so much to talk about. And so he started at the beginning. 

Nyirinkindi: How early did you learn about police brutality? 

Kearney: Lots of things happened to me and my family. Lots of things happened. Both by official police, as well as by vigilantes.

And no one talked about it as police brutality, per se. It was just a part of the method of both demonizing and controlling Black communities. Especially communities like ours, who had nothing in terms of any material assets but had very, very fertile and active minds academically and intellectually.

We were the biggest threats to the order from the standpoint of those who were controlling Arkansas. And it led to us being really, really demonized, as well, by sometimes the school officials themselves, because they clearly understood that we were capable of breaking through the barriers academically.

And so when I said that I wanted to someday go to an Ivy League college, that was laughable to the school persons who were responsible for guiding us.

Nyirinkindi: So, we fast forward to 2020.  You've obviously seeing the events with George Floyd’s murder, the situation with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and all these other recent events that have triggered worldwide protests. What do you think or feel, Jude, about this moment that we're finding ourselves in?

Kearney:  We were all jarred. And so when Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and a number of others were killed in such terms of lynching and indifference, it all hit us that we're heading backwards.

Nyirinkindi: You have clients across the African continent. How did they react to what was going on to what's going on actually still in the United States?

Kearney:  We recognized the bond that we share because any one of them—had they been in Minneapolis on that same day—could have been George Floyd, as could I. And they all recognized that.

And so they became consumed with what is going on in the U.S. and how can we ensure that George Floyds don't occur 10 years from now. So the real point is that my clients in Nigeria and in South Africa and in Kenya and in South Sudan and in Equatorial Guinea, and in Ghana, they all view this through the same lens that I was viewing it.

And it has allowed us to have a level of conversation beyond just the business conversation that we've had, but to talk about this in ways that strengthened my relationship with them. 

Nyirinkindi: So, Jude, as you were talking, I was examining my own thoughts about what I felt. And so as an African living in America, I recall a very strong visceral reaction to that imagery.

I mentioned to you before that I was a victim of an oppressive situation in Uganda, right? So we grew up in the Idi Amin years. So. By 1974, my father had to leave the country, He was a victim of torture. But very much, a policeman who was our next-door neighbor kept saying to my dad for one year: “I don't like you. One of these days, I'll put you in the boot and you won't be seen alive again.” 

And my dad kept saying, come on you shouldn't say those things. You’re scaring my family. My mom said, I think you should really be careful because he says those repeatedly. And then one night the man kept his promise.

And he took my dad and broke every single bone in his body. And nine years later, my dad was dead as a result of this. So yes, just that whole sense of an individual who's meant to protect you can actually cause such a drastic change in a whole family's life. That thing, it struck me in the moment as I was watching.

But the reason I mention this to you as a person who has lived in Africa, my question is: what can we learn from the situation in the United States for Africa? Have you seen any institutionalized racism in Africa, is any one particular country where you've been where you've experienced this?

Kearney: I've seen forms of institutional racism and informal racism from both Blacks and Whites. And I mean racism against Blacks from both Blacks and Whites in Africa. When I lived in Nigeria back in 1980-81, I developed a friendship with a very, very prominent lawyer.  

We were sitting one day having tea and he was explaining what his practice was like. And he was saying that when he gets to the point of needing outside professional counsel, he said that is when he goes and finds good White lawyers to be his chief advisors. And despite my great affection for this lawyer, I told him how offensive that was and how surprised I was actually that we have this issue—and we had that issue, and we still have it to some extent in the U.S. 

But in Africa, I said, in Nigeria, where you control more of the levers of power and decision making and stake holding, why you wouldn't think in terms of Blacks being equal to Whites and their ability to provide you complex legal advice? And he said, our experience is that we haven't arisen to that level of capacity. And, and that stuck with me. It really honestly did.

With regards to White racism, both institutional and informal, I've experienced that as well from my first days in Africa and living in Nigeria. A lot of the heads of commerce throughout Africa, both then, and to some extent now, are in the hands of Whites.

And so they have their own societies, their own cultural places in these Black societies where they limit Blacks’ access to their social gatherings. And that was also quite shocking to me.

Bauomy: Despite all that, both Jude and Emmanuel found that their pedigree, their western education, their quality of work—and yes—their skin color, actually weren't detrimental to being successful in Africa.

In fact, it was viewed as an enhancement and often made them more credible. However, that doesn't mean that the system isn't biased and that sometimes you have to trick the system, as Emmanuel recounts. 

Nyirinkindi: I had a team and I was the team leader and the team had people of all races or genders and we had to make a presentation, a very senior presentation.

I won't say for which country. But we were very conscious that in this country, they attached great importance to who was making the presentation and they actually did attach, strangely enough, a view that somebody who was a White colleague would actually be more expert.

How we changed our behavior? We ended up deciding that it was going to be a White colleague of ours who would speak because at the end of the day, you want to be successful. Right?  And so those experiences, I think, many of us do come across them. 

When we look at the area we both operate in—international development—what do you think about racism? How is it impacting our sector? Is it a big problem? 

Kearney:  It's a significant problem. I do think that the word “racism” is appropriate, but a word that's just as good is “bias” and some sense of “empiricism.”

 Very, very often what has been offered to Africa, in particular by multilaterals, has been very short term assistance and support in regards to development, in regards to projects, in regards to aid, as opposed to doing the hard work of rolling your sleeves up alongside your African colleagues to work on systems that will be sustainable in the future.

Africans are doing that on their own now. You can find capacity in Kenya and Uganda and Nigeria that would match capacity in just about any other country. And so now Africans themselves, and African countries and African governments themselves focus first and foremost on capacity-building. So that they will put themselves in a position to need less and less of what's called aid and more of what they really want, which is partnership, investment partners and strategic partners.

Nyirinkindi:  Jude, what wisdom would you leave for anybody who's trying to make things better in this space? 

Kearney:  Certainly capacity-building. Taking the best and brightest and the most capable in all of the key disciplines in that country and supporting them. That's number one.

And number two: fostering the idea because it is a fact that investment in Africa has a higher return than investment anywhere else in the world. That's factual. Institutions have a role to play in fostering that idea, making sure that an individual investor isn't unwarranted in deciding, “Oh, well I shouldn't be in Africa.”

Truth of the matter is they should probably be in Africa depending on their sector, because the opportunities there are substantial.

Bauomy: Now that's a good message. And on that note, we'll end the story here.

I hope you enjoyed this conversation. I certainly learned a lot. And if you'd like to find out more, feel free to visit Thanks so much for listening and thanks to Jude and Emmanuel for taking the time to talk about this. This audio story is a production of IFC Insights. It was created with the help of Christina Nelson and John Donnelley. 

Nicholas Alexander was your sound editor, and I'm your host and producer at Jasmin Bauomy. And I hope I'll get to talk to you again soon.

Published in July 2020

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