I went on a rant on Twitter today about western saviorists reducing African cultures to tools for their personal and professional development. It’s pretty much all archived in my storify. Have you heard about this new book? Why do you think Africa is so seductive to westerners – white people, especially – seeking to discover themselves? http://sfy.co/aQ92 #storify #westernsaviorism #whitesaviorism

23 Responses to Dear Western Saviorists, Stop Reducing Africa to a Play Pen for Your Personal Development

  1. kittenforever says:

    As a white American who does hope to do volunteerism abroad through Peace Corps or similar, this was very helpful and I appreciate it. Thank you. I will keep all this in mind to try to be respectful. I completely understand that it is not your job to educate people like me, so you don’t have to answer this, but does anyone reading this have any advice for how to go about volunteering abroad in a way that is respectful of your host culture and not white saviory?

    • Amber Smith says:

      To me, an important difference is whether the people themselves believe there is a problem and ask for your help, or if you are coming in because you believe there is a problem and are going to help.

      • kittenforever says:

        Oh I definitely agree, I’m just not sure how to tell the difference. I plan on going through an established program, which all *say* they’re respectful of locals and there to actually help them, but it doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. I’m wondering what are good ways to tell apart programs that actually do good work (following the requests of host countries and respecting their culture) from those that are more interested in serving volunteers and themselves.

        • Amber Smith says:

          I suppose the good thing about an established program is that it’s been around for long enough to have reviews, articles written about it, a track record, etc.

        • How many people from the community are actually part of leadership/management. Not just ‘on staff’ as implementers, while foreigners do the work. That’s a pretty easy way to tell if a program’s design / deliverables are actually authored by community vs. handed over to implement.

          • Amber Smith says:

            Good point. In general, employing people who already live in a country should be both cheaper for the program (importing labor from overseas is not very efficient, after all,) and provide good jobs for the community. Programs where people come in and do things which people in the community could be doing have bad effects on wages and shunt that potential income to the Westerners, rather than the people being “helped”. It’s only worthwhile to bring someone in if they can offer some expertise or skill that isn’t locally available.

            I remember a scene in 3 Cups of Tea (about a man building schools in Pakistan,) where a young American inquired about volunteering to go along and help build schools, and was gently rebuffed because it simply didn’t make economic sense to pay airfare to bring construction-workers to Pakistan when plenty of laborers looking for work already live there. I don’t know anything about Mortensen’s work outside of the book, but it seems like he was dedicated to actually serving the Pakistanis, rather than building up a ‘foundation’ to benefit from.

    • BC Tiger says:

      I think it depends on who learns from whom. If you are going to a new culture, learn from those people. You are the subordinate, basically. Too many people try to teach the world, when what most places in the world need is more listening. Always listen to the people who live there over an ‘agency’. If possible, hang out more with the locals than organizers, too.

      • kittenforever says:

        That makes a lot of sense, thank you.

      • kittenforever says:

        Not that this is the same situation at all, but I remember when I was in a treatment center for trauma recovery, there were student volunteers and interns there, most younger than myself. Some were really helpful, but others had this attitude that they were better than me and needed to “heal” me, just because I was going through a personal crisis and they were not. These were people with no or little experience in the field, or sometimes any field. It was very patronizing and dehumanizing, and while programs like Peace Corps serve different populations, I can definitely see how that attitude being present in volunteers could be just as patronizing and dehumanizing. We’re all just people. It will definitely be important to remember that, that we’re all just people with our own assets and challenges, and I’m a guest in their country and will be there to listen and learn. I need to remember how it felt when there were volunteers and interns at my program, so I don’t repeat their mistakes.

        • Zara Chiron says:

          * Actually Miss Kitten…your comment about your trauma recovery is extremely insightful and you are on the right path to use that experience to help your understanding of all this.

          The “patronizing” attitude you described is so real and exactly what many Africans have to suffer (publicly) at the hands of “white saviourists” worldwide …good for you :)
          And I hope that you have since fully recovered from the (traumatic) experience you underwent. *

  2. Lesley Gene Agams says:

    If I an African woman write a book about my journey of personal and professional development in the west the past 6 months will that be 'cultural appropriation'? I'm really trying hard to understand

  3. Melanie Nicholls Kuyan says:

    Hi Lesley it is a good point you make but I think the difference is that the West has the privilege and means to tell their side of the story in response to yours but in this case the Maasai do not have a voice, nor the means to have one. It is one thing to share your story about personal development, but it is another to share it badly and be the voice for an Indigenous minority. Mindy (this author) has an unbelievable arrogance and sense of superiority that is going unchallenged – partially because of a general unawareness in the West of Maasai people and culture, partially our insatiable need for girl-power adventure stories but also because of the West's innate sense of cultural superiority

  4. All of this … you just spoke all my thoughts on cultural appropriation, saviourism, and the politics of international aid agencies

  5. All of this … you just spoke all my thoughts on cultural appropriation, saviourism, and the politics of international aid agencies

  6. John Nicholls says:

    Wll said, Mel!

  7. Sam Thorp says:

    I agree with you. And it's not just Africa. It's the same when White people take "spiritual pilgrimages" to India. or go to South America for a drug induced "vision quest". More white people do "sweat lodges" than actual Native Americans…. and they pay BIG bucks for all of it. There's money in cultural appropriation.

  8. And if you spoke to most Africans, they are more concerned with the sincerity of the individual Western person than with the distinctly Western notion of cultural appropriation.

  9. Nell Hamilton says:

    Thanks for this! And thanks also for the comments about it not being the job of WOC to take Mindy and her ilk down a peg or two, which have given me something to think about.

    As a white, western woman living and working in Africa I can reassure you I am indeed seriously pissed off with Mindy and her condescending cultural appropriation, and thinking she can become or know anything about Africa during a glorified extended holiday and then portray herself as an expert (it beggars belief that anyone can take her seriously).

    But I didn’t rant publically on this – partly because I was busy doing my actual job – but also partly because I figured to put mself forward as a spokesperson to ‘speak for’ the Maasai women would be also patronising, and that they and other African women were doing a damn fine job of cutting her down without my help.

    I do write about issues (at nellhamilton.com) that I have experience of personally. Chiefly prompted by aid consultants who come to Zanzibar for a week, visit our projects for an hour, and immediately start telling my (very capable, knowledgable and motivated) local colleagues what they are going to do next and what order they will do it in, when they already have great ideas and plans, and would like donors perhaps to maybe ask them what they’d like help with and provide support for the things they actually want and need. I may not know all there is to know, but I can certainly admit I have figured out a thing or two which others seem to be unaware of. Expertise is relative…

    I guess what holds me back from jumping in to respond publically to people like Mindy is that it’s not easy to do so while avoiding coming over as self-identifying proudly as an ally: ‘look at me, I’m not like them! My work is GOOD! We’re Not All Like That (TM) Do I get a cookie?’ or other such crap.

    Obviously I believe my work is worth doing and that I’m doing it the right way, or I wouldn’t be doing it, or I’d be doing it differently. but I don’t need a cookie just for doing my best to behave like a decent, respectful human being.

    The effectiveness or otherwise of my work will speak for itself, and praising my achievements is something for my colleagues and the recipients of my professional attention to do. My job is to try to give them a voice and a platform in the local conversation and help them be listened to (I am working on getting some local voices on my blog too). I have great colleagues who tell me both when my input, ideas etc are helpful and when they are not. But knowing a bit about how to be effective in Zanzibar does not give me a licence to say I know how it is or speak on behalf of people elsewhere in this huge and diverse continent.

    Now, in the specific case of our Warrior Princess, I am definitely also on the receiving end, in addition to the Maasai women she ‘liberated’ (ugh! Hell no girl, please don’t ever come back to Africa). She and others like her paint a pretty poor picture of the White Woman in Africa which incenses and offends me. But however offended I may be, I am sure it’s nothing compared to the impact it has on African women who have to deal with this BS (and the patronising picture it paints of them to people who buy into it) all the time.

    So thanks again for writing this. One of the main audiences for my blog is for volunteers who come to work with our NGO and partner orgs, and I have a whole 101 orientation lecture (e.g. do not even think about suggesting how project leaders should change anything, or try and do anything, for at least a week. You are the student here) and reading list (Ernesto Sirolli’s Shut up and Listen video for starters). I will from now on also be directing them here. If anyone wants to suggest any other White Volunteer in Africa 101 reading I should give them, please let me have it!

    I will definitely continue to read your writing – and hopefully learn from it. And I guess I (and other white women in my position) will only get better at being supportive, not patronising, by sticking our neck out in the best way we are able, trying to join the conversation when appropriate but without dominating it, and risking getting our head smacked when we need it. And where people let us know we’ve got it wrong we have to listen to and learn from the feedback and resolve to develop and get better.

    I guess I’d better get started on my rant about Ms Warrior Princess then…

  10. […] the many white people in African countries using us to make a name for themselves while overshadowing the work of those few who genuinely care and have a clue about what they’re doing, please get over yourselves, and find less […]

  11. […] Else -Dear white saviorists, Africa isn’t a playpen for your personal development. -I went to private school and it made me value public education more, not less. -Tweeting for […]

  12. […] I don’t know if you read this article about this Western white woman who came to Kenya to challenge her life in a Massai tribe , and if you do not see the problem in that matter, please, go to read this incredible and passionate article of this nigerian woman. […]

  13. nora says:

    why not volunteer in your own country? is it not a kind of escapism to believe you can make things better elsewhere?

  14. nora says:

    even better, make it your business to make things better! why should doing good be this special ringfenced thing reserved for charities?

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