I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Usually though, I just end up angrily venting about what I’m about to write to my husband or friends who I already know agree with me. It occurs to me that saying these things to people who already know them to be true is not very helpful, but I’ve struggled with how to put this in writing – talking about being condescending – without being condescending myself. So this will probably be a work in progress that I would really appreciate feedback on. Bear with me.
I’m not going to get in to a long drawn on lecture on the colonization of Africa here. If you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonisation_of_Africa. Needless to say it is a long, messy, violent, and tragic history that has had lasting and ongoing implications. White people took slaves and natural resources and brought diseases and Bibles. It is widely acknowledged that “we” are at least partially responsible for the current state of affairs on the continent.
Fast forward to the 2000’s, and our liberal, educated generation hears about this history and sees the ongoing unrest and suffering. We are shown devastating photographs of sad, dirty children. We are told about how poor and uneducated “they” are. We enthusiastically participate in charity targeted at helping them. It is nearly always well intentioned, but good intentions do not ensure good results. Often, these well intentioned thoughts and actions are actually a condescending, patronizing new form of colonialism. When an American or European who has never stepped foot in an African country or maybe went to visit for a couple of weeks decides he or she knows what people in Africa need, they are actually (and probably genuinely unknowingly) belittling the people and cultures they believe they are “saving”.
The most obvious and widely known example of this is the “Kony 2012” campaign. I’ll elaborate on the details of this later (for now I’m concentrating more on my point), but basically, this was a white American man’s attempt to demand US involvement in the capturing of the leader of a guerrilla army, guilty of murder, rape, and more human rights abuses than I could list here. In his “viral video”, he focused on Kony’s time in Uganda, despite the fact that it was widely known Kony and his army had left Uganda for the remote jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo years prior. The attention this video received did more harm than good. First of all, it oversimplified the conflict to a borderline offensive degree. From watching that video, you would get the idea that Kony’s army was full of monsters, and the Ugandan government was “the good guys”. Kony IS a monster, but his army is made up of young boys who have and will continue to protect him with their lives. Many of these boys have escaped and have been rehabilitated. They’re not all monsters. It wasn’t mentioned in the film that capturing Kony would undoubtedly result in killing a bunch of kids. Additionally, the film fails to mention that the Ugandan Army also uses child soldiers and along with the Rwandan army, took an active role in genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Basically, this was not the “good guy vs bad guy” scenario portrayed in the film.
More damaging than the oversimplifying of a tremendously complex civil situation was the “pity” factor placed on Uganda. In the same year that Lonely Planet named it one of the top travel destinations on Earth, this video was released making Uganda look like a war-torn, unstable hell hole. Parts of it may be, but this would be like showing foreigners a 20 minute film about the current conditions in Detroit without clarifying that it wasn’t representative of the entire United States, or even the state of Michigan. Ugandans spoke out in tremendous numbers against the video, fearing the damage it would do to their tourism economy and that the new attention would reignite the conflict, but it was too late. Interestingly, most of the positive coverage of Kony 2012 comes from Westerners, and most of the negative coverage from Africans. Who should we be listening to?
Imagine if the push for marriage equality in the United States was led not by Americans, but by a very vocal group of Swedish folks who showed up here one day, posting pictures of sad looking Americans and thoughtfully commenting on how sorry they felt for us and our backwards ways. Be honest with yourself. How do you think that would have been received?
That is exactly what happens when Americans or Europeans decide they can fix Africa. Very rarely do they understand the cultural and social and economic nuances of the region or country or people they want to fix. Another great example: one morning when I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I woke up to see a donkey grazing on the grass in front of my window. After nearly a month in the country, this was the first time I’d seen a donkey. Where did he come from? I asked. From a European NGO (I forget which country) a few years back, I was told. A thoughtful visitor had observed the women in the region hunched over from carrying supplies and crops to and from the market and decided to donate donkeys, so that they could carry the heavy loads instead of the women. Only, they failed to consider the expense of feeding and keeping a donkey. It ended up being more of a burden than a blessing for most, and a lot of the donkeys ended up being eaten for dinner. My friend in the yard was one of the lucky ones, I guess.
That was a little anecdote I only know because I happened to see a donkey in the middle of the eastern Congo and ask about it, and you know honestly, I probably would have heard a proposal to give donkeys to farming families in the Congo and thought it was a great idea. Because I don’t actually live there. Therein lies the reason I was nervous about sounding condescending when I wrote this – I’ve been guilty of “new colonialism” thinking myself.
The first time I went to Africa, it was the fulfillment of a dream that I’d had since I was 10 and a Maasai warrior had visited my elementary school to tell stories. When I had bombarded him with questions, he told me to come visit him some day. This was a childhood dream that was based more in Indiana Jones fantasy than reality, but it had stuck through the years. It seemed all the more relevant with my undergraduate major of Public Health and interest in Dr. Paul Farmer. I was naive, and eagerly took the trip to Tanzania believing I could help people with my college class knowledge and eager desire to help. It took about 2 days to get a reality check. The best way for me, an inexperienced college kid, to help people in Tanzania was to buy stuff. No one cared why I was there, but they sure cared that I was there – walking through the markets, staying at a hotel, eating, drinking, and hiring tour guides and taxi drivers. I had some very frank conversations with folks I met there, and it became very clear to me that a lot of Tanzanians are well aware of the fact that they are recipients of “charity” from untrained wide-eyed college students who want to “experience” life in another culture and “help”. The true motives of most of these trips are clear when you read the posts on college and “voluntourism” blogs – lots of “it changed MY life”, “it opened MY eyes”, “It gave ME a sense purpose”.
Me. Me. Me. Let’s be honest. This isn’t about responding to an acute need with evidence-based, well researched and coordinated action to benefit a population in need. Its about having an adventure with a self serving purpose of helping people you feel sorry for and taking pictures in exotic locations with exotic looking people and because another trip to Cabo isn’t going to look awesome on your resume.
Like I said, I was guilty of this line of thinking myself even though I wasn’t aware of it until I was faced with my own preconceived notions of what it meant to be an American in Africa and stereotypes of life in Africa. So when I say all of this, I say it without judgement of people who are still thinking this way, but in hopes that it will lead to some reconsideration.
Which is why this article made me sick to my stomach and kicked me in to gear from venting to writing:
The fact is, its not our role to decide what an African country needs. It is our role to observe, to listen, to be aware. The amount of condescension, paternalism, colonialism, and downright narcissism wrapped up in this one little article is dizzying. Not to mention the cover of her book – a white woman holding a Maasai spear wearing Chanel nail polish (because, she says, it made her feel “fierce”) is incredibly exploitative and offensive. I don’t blame Mindy Budgor for her initial thought – or even her incredibly cliche reason for going on safari in Kenya (because all of the Gucci and Prada in the world still left her feeling “empty” – yawn). What I do blame her for is making the trip, engrossing herself in a foreign culture, and still believing she had the right to push her agenda on a people she has no actual expertise in or connection to other than noticing that they look cool. The fact that she has the audacity to refer to herself as a “Warrior Princess” after spending 3 weeks in a village – wearing Under Armor and pearls – would be funny if not so horrifyingly patronizing. The fact that many people would put Mindy and I in the same category – privileged white women who spent time in Africa – makes me a bit queasy. If there was an “eye-roll” font, this paragraph would have been written in it, and bolded.
I know this is an extreme example, but it epitomizes the problem with my generation and well-intentioned African voluntourism. It is incredible that so many of us have had the privilege of global travel, and even better that xenophobia is quickly becoming outdated as more and more people leave their comfort zones for foreign land. Curiosity of the unknown and unfamiliar is part of our human nature, and anyone who is cynical about the desire to experience the exotic is being dishonest. The curiosity is mutual… when I visited a women’s co-operative in Burundi, a few young girls timidly asked if they could touch my hair. That being said, there is a respectful way to participate in and contribute to life in Africa. Calling yourself a warrior princess and exploiting an already exploited people for your own personal fulfillment/agenda isn’t it.
If you want to go to Africa, by all means go. I would shout it from the rooftops, GO!! But do not go because you want to save people and you think you know how. Go because you want to. Go because you are curious. Go shop, eat, drink, take tours, meet people, ask questions and be an observant visitor, because that’s what you are. Contributing to local businesses helps reduce suffering in Africa in the same way it reduces suffering here. When you want to take pictures, ask permission, and if they ask for money in exchange, give them some. Go without an agenda except to see and hear, taste and smell.
Truly ending colonialism means African people get to decide what African people want and need. When you want to help, rather than paying an American or European voluntourism company or donating to an American or European run NGO, seek out businesses created by and run by people who are actually from the region they are trying to aid. Look for organizations that do not allow foreign undergrad volunteers because instead they hire and train community members. Research has shown that community-directed health interventions are far more sustainable and successful than those that rely completely on foreign involvement. This is Paul Farmer’s model that has been immensely successful in Haiti and other countries. This is why I have remained involved in the NGO I originally volunteered with. I lucked out, because as I said – I was naive at the time to the issues with foreign-led NGOs, but this organization was formed by a Congolese microbiologist. In addition to actually being Congolese, he met with ministers of health, local doctors, and community leaders all over the country to make sure he had a comprehensive understanding of what was needed before he got to work. The success of his mission lies almost entirely in the hands of trained local community health workers, providing education and empowerment to men and women who will live their entire lives in these communities – not Americans who have come for a visit.
My role in this organization has been to raise money and awareness. What happens with that money is not, nor should it ever be, up to an outsider. When I returned to Africa last year, I went with a very different perspective. I went to observe and witness the work that had been done and the work that still needs to be done. Ironically enough, that led to conversations about things that I actually CAN do to help, now that I have training and experience in a specific field. It also led to a different experience because I allowed myself to be a tourist and not a volunteer. I shopped to my heart’s content, went out to bars, listened to live music, drank the local beers, and made a couple of great friends. One of those friends stands out as a particularly great example of my overall point. Lawerence formed an organization called Green Youth Conservation Uganda. He’s a young, educated guy who’d be best described as middle class. He needs tents, because he takes local kids on camping trips to encourage a respect and appreciation of nature. No one needs to feel sorry for him, he’s awesome and successful. It would be a shame to see money and resources go to an American, even with the same goals, when it could be going to him.
I don’t quite know how to wrap this up. This is obviously a work in progress. My main point is that I know that no one goes to Africa because they want to be condescending and patronizing, but we do it all the time, and we have a tendency to reward it and praise it. Be mindful of your intentions. If you have an agenda, no matter how noble you think it may be, set it aside, because people from Africa are not different from people from Boston, or people from Spain – the poverty and unrest that exist within the continent do not permit us to decide or pretend to know what is best for its people.