It was perhaps Kemi Williams’s peripatetic childhood that made her the questioning soul that she always was, well before Bedales appeared on her radar. Born in Lagos to a Nigerian engineer father and a mother who was an English nurse, Kemi left for the Sussex town of Brighton as a very young girl; it was the time of the horrific Biafran War and her father would return to the country in the wake of that conflict to help in its reconstruction. Kemi herself has childhood memories of seeing railcar after railcar passing by at a railway crossing, full of amputees bearing the scars of war. “I wondered what it was all about, of course,” she says. “My parents split up when I was seven and I would shuttle between Gatwick and Lagos. The experience made me wonder in more than abstract terms about why things should be as they were. How could some people have so much and others so little?”
As a pupil at a secondary modern school near Brighton, Kemi had been one of only two black children from a complement of 1200. It was not always the happiest of experiences. “I certainly got used to bullying and the feeling of being slightly marginalised,” she recalls. “As the child of a white mother and a Nigerian father, there has always been a little bit of a problem with being fully accepted as belonging to either culture. When I got to Bedales, though, I never once experienced racism in any form, which was most unusual for Britain in those days.”
Kemi’s father had felt that a British public school education would be the right answer for his children, much to the horror of her mother, who subsequently insisted that she would at least pick a destination for her daughters that would echo the family’s values as faithfully as possible. “I turned seventeen within weeks of arriving at Bedales and I remember those first impressions vividly,” says Kemi. “I spent my seventeenth birthday eating spaghetti and playing music in the classroom; I also made friendships in my first week that stood the test of time. It was as though you were part of a large family and it was a seminal moment in my upbringing. I could grow into myself, while everyone around me made positive assumptions about me that became self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Cultural life at Bedales was also fully embraced. “I wasn’t a great singer and I might have done a couple of plays but I did a lot of dancing, which I loved, as well as judo, basketball and running,” Kemi reflects. “Then there was the barn-building – I was one of the students involved with the reconstruction and re-siting of a barn at Bedales.” A leading influence on Kemi at the time was Ruth Whiting, her form tutor. “We used to go to Ruth’s for dinner and madrigals,” Kemi laughs, “and I remember her fondly. She may have intimidated some people but I can’t say that I ever felt that way as one of a family full of tough, bolshy women!”
A vague desire to become a child psychologist was stymied by Kemi’s A Level grades in history, English and social biology. “I had run out of ideas when I happened to see a course in international development at East Anglia University that promised to answer a lot of the questions, especially about Africa, which I’d been asking for most of my life,” she explains. “Bedales had taught me how to stand on my own feet and to study independently and productively; so many of my university contemporaries didn’t seem to have much idea of how to fill their free time beyond the pub. I wasn’t really a pub person – more a gin and tonic girl – but that was OK; I knew now that I wanted a career in international development.”
Having applied to VSO for some experience and been rejected (“Quite rightly – I didn’t have a skill set to offer them,” Kemi notes), Kemi went to Sussex University to obtain her Master’s in Gender and Development. “Again, I was seeking answers,” she says “After Sussex, I started getting some proper experience, working in London and running a training programme for a women’s organisation and then for the World University Service on its refugee programme.” Meanwhile, Kemi had helped to establish Abantu for Development, an NGO run by and for African women, promoting women’s rights in decision-making and governance issues. “I set up Abantu with women from Senegal, Kenya and Madagascar and we organised conferences in Uganda and South Africa; meanwhile I was also able to visit China for a global women’s conference at about the same time,” she says.
Throughout this period, Kemi had been based in London. In 1996, came the opportunity to head back to Nigeria with the Ford Foundation, working on the myriad human rights issues that were being spawned by the military regime of the day. “It was the first time that I’d lived in, as opposed to visited, Nigeria since I was a child and it was a fabulous time for me,” she says, “not least because it was there that I met my future husband. It was supposed to be three months of research and I ended up staying in the job for two years.”
Towards the end of 1998, the Department for International Development (DFID) came knocking at Kemi’s door. “They offered me a job that meant that I would still be living in Nigeria but getting paid in pounds,” she remembers happily. “I was working on social development projects but essentially and much to my surprise, I had become a civil servant!” DFID was now to become the constant thread in Kemi’s life – her spell in Nigeria was followed by three years in the organisation’s South African office before a temporary return to London as Senior Gender Advisor for DFID.
“Moving back to London was fascinating, although not really what I had joined DFID to accomplish,” Kemi continues. “It needed to be done, though, if I was hoping to get promoted and move on through the organisation. One thing that being back in Britain confirmed for me was the realisation that I could be both British and African. I didn’t have to deny either part of my heritage. I speak Yoruba, I love British food – there was no need to choose between them. As I learned at Bedales, everyone has to carve their own path through life.”
Between 2010 and 2014, Kemi worked on secondment with the Nike Foundation in Africa, establishing and managing Girl Hub Rwanda and Girl Hub Nigeria to unleash the potential of adolescent girls in developing countries by investing in them and promoting their voice, value and agency. “I can see a light at the end of the gender tunnel in Africa now,” she observes. “The tide is running in our favour and with change in the air all over the world, why should it not be? We’ve seen such huge social changes in recent times in places as different as Ireland and South Africa; even in the most conservative African countries there has been a reaction against those who would use religion as a hammer to enforce cultural norms on African women.”
Now back in Lagos as part of DFID’s senior management team in Nigeria, Kemi looks to the future with undimmed enthusiasm and ambition. “I’ll certainly be with DFID for the next three years, possibly looking at graduating to mandarin status!” she suggests. “After that we might go anywhere. I would love to put my experience to good use in Asia – somewhere like Pakistan, perhaps. Basically, I want to go to places where this kind of work matters and be able to make a difference, rather than sitting in London, writing policy. Our family has always lived a backwards and forwards life. My father emigrated to Canada in the 1980s and is a great travelling role model to us all; we have our house in Lagos and a little place in Lewes and I suspect that we shall carry on with the international commuting for a long time to come.”
Kemi Williams was interviewed by James Fairweather in June 2015.