“white savior”, your volunteer trip to “africa” was more beneficial to you than to “africa”

June 13, 2018
12.7K Picks
By Chidera Ihejirika, AFROPUNK Contributor


What could possibly be wrong with going on a 2-week trip to Kenya in order to help build a school for low-income African children and posting on social media about how the brokenness and suffering that you have witnessed has transformed your entire life after returning to your midsized suburban home in Toronto?

Immediately, after reading that question with little to no critical thinking you may say: “well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that”. Why would there be anything wrong with going to an area of need to help meet that need? But, if only it were that simple. Let me break it down for y’all real quick.

I am not here to make you feel bad about your 2011 missions trip to Kenya. After all, you cannot go back in time and decide not to go build that school. But what you can do is decide whether or not you would take such a trip again. Before making that decision, I feel that there are multiple things that you should consider which may or may not change your decision.

Firstly, what are your motivations behind going on the trip? Now, I’d like to believe that most people travel to these African countries because they see poverty and they want to help. The reality is that there is poverty everywhere. If you stand in your own backyard, I am almost certain that you will not have to travel very far to find a community in need of help whether that be emotionally, financially or otherwise. So, I ask you this, respectfully of course, why do you feel the need to cross the ocean in order to help this specific community in this specific country of all countries in the second largest continent on Earth? Perhaps, you have a deep-rooted passion to help this specific poor African community. Why is that? Do you have any connection to that community?

If you are struggling to answer these questions then perhaps your desire to travel to Kenya to help these poor African children is not as innocent as you think it is. In the world that we live in, going to a small community in Kenya to build schools is considered much more exciting and media worthy than helping out at your local soup kitchen in Toronto. But it is incredibly selfish to go build a school in a community you know very little about because you are searching for a humbling experience. There are many ways to experience humility and some of them would get less likes on social media. At the end of the day, if your passion to help people still burns inside of you none of that should matter.

Since the colonial era, Africa has been viewed as this blank space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected (Cole, 1). As Teju Cole brilliantly states in his article in the Atlantic, Africa is seen as this liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. If you find that your social media posts mostly talk about you and how this experience has shaped you, changed you and made you a better person. I would seriously urge you to do some re-evaluating. I am not saying that your personal growth and emotional journey are not important but these trips involve people’s lives and people’s homes. At the end of the day, there are many other ways you can fulfill your emotional needs but there are few, if any (known) routes to long-term sustainable growth for the people in these communities. And in this case, doesn’t long-term sustainable growth trump your personal growth?

Maybe you were able to establish that your motivations are selfless, that you have this special connection to this one community and you feel this burning passion to go help out. Now ask yourself are you well equipped to help this community? Will your presence do more harm than good? Have you done your due diligence and extensively researched both the present day and historical environment of the community? Do you hold the tools to developing Africa? Feeding villages and building schools will not alleviate poverty you need teachers, strong representative government, a rigorous equitable economy and more. For example, are you aiming to empower women who will be able to contribute to the economy after you leave? Do you have plans to educate young women? Are you interested in finding out why young women are not being educated?

The consequences of colonialism and slavery are so traumatic and intricate that they cannot be solved by a nicely built school or an optimistic conversation as nice as those things may be. You may love Africa but you are not an expert on Africa or African issues, is anyone? There are scholars who have studied Uganda (one country of 54 African countries) for decades and they still do not have the solutions to the issues and the poverty that you see. THESE ISSUES ARE SO COMPLEX. If a well-educated African scholar who has studied one country for decades does not have the solutions, how can a group of well-meaning Christians from a small church in Toronto have them?

So maybe you have made it this far and either have full answers to all these questions or are still extremely passionate about going on this trip to Kenya. Now all I ask of you is to be as sensitive and comprehensive as possible when posting on social media. Comprehensive because yes, Africa has poverty but Africa is so much more than poverty. You may or may not know about the single story/ simplistic mentality towards Africa. Let me remind you. This narrative is why some people genuinely think that Africa is a country. It is why some people actually believe that Africans are poor and live in huts. In my opinion, this whole Africa is poor and antiquated narrative needs to die because it is far from accurate. We are the epitome of resilience. We are technological geniuses. We are artists, we are activists, we are scholars and we are thriving despite slavery, colonization and continued exploitation by western countries in the present day. If you are visiting a small community in the Congo to provide clean drinking water and build schools SAY THAT. If you stay in a nice and bed and breakfast on your way to that community, do not hesitate to show that. Maybe eventually, my children’s children won’t have to explain that they have never lived in a hut when they say they are Nigerian. It is a small step in the journey towards acknowledging the many facets and experiences present within Africa.

Now, I mentioned sensitive because on this trip you will most likely see conditions you are not used to seeing. Some of these conditions will break your heart but remember this is not about you and no matter the state, this is still someone’s home. I have seen people refer to communities with amazing Africans doing incredible local community work as one of the most broken places on earth. To say something of this magnitude is extremely insensitive to those who call that place home. It is also degrading to the community members who are and have been actively working to improve things. Speak about this community as if it were your own. How would you feel if someone referred to your home as broken, dirty and/or disgusting? Always remember your position as someone who does not share the lived experience of that community.

So, I hope have helped you come to a sound decision about whether or not you should go on this trip to Kenya. If not, I hope I have changed the way you planned to share your trip with the world (social media etc.) both during and upon your return from this trip. The fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, the school built by those white kids from Toronto with no teachers to teach and no monitoring system in place to make sure those children are attending this school does not affect those white kids. After the 3-week discovery, they will return home to their mid-sized suburban homes in Toronto with tales of how their lives were transformed by the things that they saw and egos successfully boosted. But what has actually changed for those children you left behind, the ones you wanted so much to help? If anything, I hope this has helped you realize that the last thing “Africa” needs is more 20 something year old white saviors.

Check out the amazing resources below for more info:

Chimamanda’s TED Talk

Teju Cole article

*Previously published on deraiheji.com*