Why I was hesitant to accept a splendid job offer in Nairobi

Wednesday March 18 2020

But before the week ran out, we received a letter from the Aga Khan saying he was going to be in London soon and would like to see me. ILLUSTRATION | J NYAGAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Yusuf K. Dawood

The candidates running for the post in Nairobi were four, and the interviewing panel was chaired by professor of surgery in Khartoum, Sudan, an alumnus of St. George’s Medical School.

The interview took place in the Governor’s office, a title used at the time for the administrator or CEO, as the incumbent is called now.

The panel put all the four candidates through their paces and sat for a few minutes to reach their decision. When the Governor’s secretary stepped out of her office, she called out my name and signalled me to go back and see the panel.

The uppermost thought in my mind was how I was going to get out of it without offending them. The Sharpeville shooting in South Africa had drawn the media attention in Britain with sickening regularity and when I was offered the job, I declined by saying: “My wife is a Briton and as a mixed race couple, we will suffer the indignities of racial discrimination if Kenya is anything like its southern neighbour.”


The chairman of the panel replied: “Judging by your references, your work is excellent but I am afraid your knowledge of geography is woefully lacking.” As the panel laughed, he added: “As far as I know, there is a distance of two thousand miles between Nairobi and Johannesburg! “My boy,” he continued. “You don’t know what you are throwing away.”

As he set me pondering on his last remark, he came back with a new suggestion after conferring with his colleague in whispers: “It is a big move and we can understand your hesitation in making a decision on the spot. I suggest that you think about it for a week, consult your wife and let us know. For your information, we have also selected our second candidate, who is running neck and neck with you except that you speak four Indian languages. The Aga Khan Hospital is the first multiracial hospital in Nairobi and your ability to speak four Indian languages will be an asset.”

As I was complimenting myself on this last-minute brainwave of mine, his deputy said: “We will tell this candidate in all honesty that the job is his if after one week you decide that you are declining this splendid offer.”

On my return to Sheffield, I gave a blow-by-blow account of my interview to Marie, who said with her usual British pragmatism: “We have been given a week to think about it so let us think on it for a week.”


But before the week ran out, we received a letter from the Aga Khan saying he was going to be in London soon and would like to see me, and that I should not write to St. George’s Hospital before I see him. He added a postscript written in his handwriting in green ink. ‘Please bring your wife along.’

So we set off to London again and first met Sir Eboo Pirbhai, chairman of the hospital board and Robert Beaumont, administrator of the hospital, both flown for our meeting. They gave us a look-over and escorted us to see the Aga Khan at his mother’s flat in Eaton Square.

After the usual greetings, the Aga Khan opened the formal meeting and said. “My Selection Committee at St. George’s Hospital has unanimously selected you for the post in my hospital in Nairobi. In fact they have strongly recommended you for the job but you are reluctant to accept the position.”


I gave my reasons by briefly narrating my experiences in Karachi and added: “I am afraid of losing my rung on the ladder of a consultant’s post in Britain and we both are scared of the political situation in Kenya and racial discrimination prevailing in the country.”

The Aga Khan referred my fears to Sir Eboo and Beaumont, who were unsure of the political situation but expressed guarded optimism. They were more positive on the matter of racial segregation and Beaumont represented their joint opinion: “There was never a regimented racial segregation in Kenya and the informal one is definitely on the way out.”

In view of her bitter experiences as a housewife in Karachi, Marie asked searching questions on the cost of living and easy availability of housing and foreign goods.


Tea and sandwiches were served, the atmosphere turned informal and the Aga Khan said: “You have a week to think about it now.” I replied: “Even if I accept the assignment, I can’t go until March next year because have a year’s contract with Sheffield and I have to stay at least for a year to gain British citizenship, which I have applied for.”

Eboo and Beaumont opposed it because they thought of it as further prevarication on my part, but the Aga Khan intervened and said. "I admire the doctor for not wanting to break his contract and I am sure that we can find a locum as long as he gives a firm undertaking in a week’s time.”

It was obvious that our potential employer was keen for us to go to Kenya.


I want to mention a funny sideshow connected with our visit to see the Aga Khan. Edith, our landlady, offered Marie her fur-coat to wear when she went to see him. “I want him to admire my expensive fur-coat,” she said. Marie complied with her request.

As we entered the Aga Khan’s flat, the doorman relieved Marie of Edith’s fur-coat as he did with our overcoats. So the Aga Khan never saw the fur-coat.

When we returned to our digs in Sheffield, Edith met us at the door and asked Marie. “Did the Aga see my fur-coat, and what did he say about it?”

She was not interested in whether I had accepted the job. Neither did Marie have the heart to tell her that the doorman relieved her of the famous fur-coat before she was led in the lounge.