Young tech entrepreneurs listen to a lecture an innovation center in Nairobi.
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NAIROBI — One of Kenya’s best-known startups has spent the last two and a half months trying to quietly handle allegations of sexual harassment from a former employee against its executive director.
Daudi Were, one of the country’s first bloggers and the executive director of Nairobi-based nonprofit software company Ushahidi, has been accused of sexually harassing an employee during a company retreat on Jan. 19. In an exclusive interview with BuzzFeed News, Angela Kabari, who has since resigned from the company, recounted how Were led her away from her coworkers and suggested that she have sex with one of her female colleagues.
Kabari, 31, said she recorded the events of that night, and allowed BuzzFeed News to listen to the clip.
But Were, who said he has listened to the recording, told BuzzFeed News he believes the clip has been edited. He could not specify what had been removed, but said that an unedited version of the recording would better support his account of what happened.
Were acknowledged that he made the “inappropriate comments,” but said they didn’t amount to sexual harassment.
“I would not call them sexual in the same way that saying ‘fuck off’ is not sexual,” he said.
The incident took place on Jan. 19. Kabari reported it three and a half months later, on May 4. Then, on July 18, the company told her the board found “a reasonable basis for a finding of gross misconduct on the part of the Respondent” and had issued him a notice to “show cause” — in other words, the board is allowing Were to make a case for why he shouldn’t be fired. The company has put him on compulsory leave and no further disciplinary action has been taken. The board also rejected a second sexual harassment allegation she brought against Were.
And then, in a move that made Kabari question whether her case was being taken seriously, the company added that Kabari had also violated her contract and the organization’s rules — which call for “mindful and respectful” communication between employees — by using phrases like “fuck off” liberally in the workplace.
Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was initially established to give people the tools to map out reports of violence following the Kenyan presidential elections in 2007. It has since been hailed as a tech company committed to empowering local communities through the flow of open information.
Several of Ushahidi’s board members, including cofounders Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich, did not respond to multiple BuzzFeed News requests for comment, instead directing inquiries to statements put out by the company regarding the investigation and the timeline of events.
Juliana Rotich is a cofounder and board member of Ushahidi. Kabari said she filed a complaint against Were to Rotich.
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Kabari told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that Ushahidi held a company retreat from Jan. 13–19 at a country club in Nyeri County, two and a half hours’ drive north of Nairobi. Many Ushahidi employees work remotely and across multiple time zones, she said, so the retreat was a way to build camaraderie.
Kabari described what took place on the final night of the retreat. Around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, while a group of Ushahidi workers were gathered around a bonfire and drinking, she said Were told her he had lost the earpiece to his hearing aid, and asked her to help him look for it.
However, Were told BuzzFeed News that he had only asked the hotel staff for help finding his earpiece, and that he did not ask Kabari for help; he said she offered.
When he told Kabari that he would pay her half the cost of the earpiece if they found it (about 250 British pounds, she recalled him saying), she said she began to record the conversation with the intention of replaying it for him the following morning as a joke.
Kabari at one point asked Were to retrace his steps to help them locate the missing earpiece, the recording indicates.
After jokingly referring to Kabari as Nancy Drew — this was when she told him to “fuck off” — Were invited her into his hotel room to continue looking for the earpiece, but she declined.
Then he told her, “You’ve got two choices. You can hang out with me, or [your roommate] can make you come. Which is better?”
“Neither. Neither,” she said.
“Is she that bad?” Were asked.
Kabari reiterated that she was “opting out of both” options.
“You know, to be honest, I didn’t see much tongue with her, so I hear you,” he said, and then added, “This is the most chafu search you’ve ever been on.” (“Chafu” is Swahili for “dirty.”)
Earlier, Were had asked Kabari where her hotel key was. She said her roommate at the retreat — a female colleague who asked not to be named in the story — had it in their room.
“Oh shit, I can’t believe…sorry, my bad. I messed up,” Were said. “My hearing aids are upstairs in the room we were in. The best way you can help me is by going to sleep right now.”
“Goodnight. You’re crazy. Goodbye,” Kabari said, and reminded him that he was still without his earpiece.
“You know the best way you can help me is by shagging [your roommate].”
“How will that help anyone?” Kabari asked.
“You get to come,” Were said.
“Yeah, [my roommate] is asleep,” she said, and told Were to go to sleep.
Were told BuzzFeed News that he “made inappropriate comments out of frustration,” but insisted that his comments were not of sexual nature.
Kabari said she eventually walked away from Were. The following day, she returned home and told her boyfriend what happened. He urged her to speak out, but she wanted to let it go and just forget about it. She said she couldn’t.
“I started avoiding the office, and when I came home from work, I would have a blinding headache,” Kabari told BuzzFeed News in the weeks following the incident.
Her headaches were soon joined by stomach aches and diarrhea. She said her doctor attributed the symptoms to stress and burnout. When she started seeing a therapist in the middle of February, she said it was then that she realized her encounter with Were was at the root of her anxiety.
She decided, then, to bring it up at work, but she didn’t know how.
“My supervisor reports to Daudi,” Kabari said. “Daudi also works alongside the administrative and operations officer in HR. He is the executive director, and also serves on the board. I did not know who the hell I should go to with my story.”
After speaking with an attorney, Kabari said she submitted a complaint to the board through one of its members, Ushahidi cofounder Juliana Rotich, on May 4. She included the audio recording of the incident.
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Given the tight-knit, interdependent nature of Nairobi’s tech ecosystem, choosing to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment is not without its risks. Most startups in Nairobi work out of a handful of the city’s coworking spaces; they belong to the same tech- and entrepreneur-focused WhatsApp groups, and frequently run into each other at hackathons and conferences.
Over the next two months, Kabari’s attorney, Were’s attorney, and Ushahidi’s attorney argued over the terms of the investigation, and scheduled and rescheduled a date for the internal hearing, during which Kabari and Were would share their testimonies of what happened at the retreat.
By the end of June, Kabari was ready to give up. She said she was left feeling demoralized thinking about how much time and energy had gone into writing letters to attorneys over the past two months, and seeing little action taken in the investigation. On June 28, she resigned from her position at Ushahidi, but continued to fight her case.
All parties — Kabari, Were, both their attorneys, the Ushahidi board and the company’s attorney — eventually met for an internal hearing on July 5. That same day, the board informed her that they had placed Were on compulsory leave.
Kabari said she was grilled by Were’s attorney during the hearing, which lasted two and a half hours.
“His attorney asked why I used ‘fuck’ in my conversation with Daudi,” Kabari said. The attorney argued that every time Kabari said ‘fuck,’ she was initiating a sexual conversation and therefore couldn’t hold anything Daudi said against him.
“The board sat there in silence the entire time,” she recalled. “It was like being in a courtroom without a judge. It felt like a legal show.”
On July 9, local blog TechMoran reported on the incident, in the first public mention of it. Ushahidi released its first statement addressing the issue the following day, saying it was “taking this claim seriously and will strive to seek a fair and just conclusion to the matter in accordance with the Law as soon as is reasonably possible.”
Several people in Nairobi’s tech world have spoken out since, including Ory Okolloh, one of the original founders of Ushahidi, who left the company in 2010.
In a Medium post published on July 11, Okolloh called Ushahidi’s response to Kabari’s complaint unacceptable.
“The idea that either individuals or organizations are ‘too big to fail’ or that the tech and start-up sector is somehow different is wrong,” Okolloh wrote.
In a 27-page report of the investigation obtained by BuzzFeed News, board members noted that according to the company’s guidelines, being found guilty of gross misconduct leads to summary dismissal, or dismissal without notice. But Kabari continues to await the board’s final decision on whether or not Were will continue to be employed by Ushahidi.
On Thursday, Kabari published her side of the story in a Medium post.
Kabari told BuzzFeed News that one of the most troubling things about the whole ordeal is the precedent it sets, and the message it sends to women who have been harassed in the workplace.
“If the board had extended to me … a fraction of the compassion they’ve given to him, this wouldn’t be happening,” she said.