White Saviours Don’t Harness The Wind
Last night, we watched the film The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, it’s absolutely gripping and I’d encourage everyone to make a point of watching it if they can.
The film tells the true story of schoolboy William Kamkwamba who built a wind-powered pump which provided irrigation and saved the lives of people in his village. The story is rich on so many levels; rural life in Malawi, government corruption and the value of education are all vividly portrayed. However, the centre of the story is William’s struggle to help his family – against their wishes at times. Excluded from school because of unpaid fees, he manages to find a way to spend time in the library, where he studies the way in which electricity is generated and used. Eventually, his family become so desperate that they allow him to cannibalise their most precious possession, his father’s bike to make his windmill.
A sub-plot to the film is the unreliability of outside help. The government are only interested in the villages when they are compliant voters and when they do send grain to the starving people it is far too little, far too late. As William’s father says, “we are on our own, no one is coming to help us”. But, the thing is, the help that they needed was right there in the community, in the form of a young man with a little education, a lot of vision and an enormous amount of drive.
This story of Africans helping themselves; providing the solution to their own problems contrasted rather starkly with the recent furore over Stacy Dooley and her Instagram pictures in Africa. If you’ve not been following this one (and I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t) Stacy Dooley a British documentary maker was photographed holding a Ugandan child to promote the Comic Relief funding drive in the UK.
The MP, David Lammy responded to this on Twitter:
The world does not need any more white saviours. As I've said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let's instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.https://t.co/LySa0BXeyi
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) February 27, 2019
And a right old ruckus ensued. I’ll leave you to Google the gory details, the background principle is what interests me here. So much of the British narrative about Africa paints the continent in a consistently negative light. It is a dark place, where people don’t even know that it’s Christmas and their only hope is for someone to come from the outside to help them. However, the story of William Kamkwamba paints a very different story, one of ingenious, creative people dealing with huge problems. Of course, there are problems in Africa – that’s the whole point of the film about William. But things are much more complex than the simple, “our charity can solve all their problems” narrative which is so often painted. For a start, many of the problems which Africa faces can be traced back to the legacy of colonialism, creating artificial nation states which lumped together groups with very little in common, while drawing border lines which split ethnic groups between two countries. Nor are things helped by the rapacious way in which companies from outside of Africa are stripping the continent of its natural resources without much care for the people who live there. And no, I’m not saying that all of the problems are caused by outsiders – that would be too simple a narrative, too.
My concern is that all too often, we rob Africans of any agency to deal with their own problems. In our narrative, it would be a gap-year student from Milton Keynes who went to Malawi and built a windmill to help those poor people, not a local lad. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the annual GDP growth rate has been at around 3% since the turn of the century and has increased by over 50% since 2000. That’s not a figure that crops up in many Comic Relief adverts.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t provide help where it is needed in Africa, far from it. However, our help and support should not imply that Africans are completely without agency in their own situation. Oh, and we shouldn’t go around picking up random kids for photo-opportunities.
So what has this got to do with Christian mission?
All too often, mission agency publicity echoes the sorts of tropes that we find in some parts of the wider charity sector: other places in the world are needy and we have the solution. Let me make a few bullet point comments.
- There are undoubtedly Gospel needs in Africa, there are everywhere. However, the church is growing faster there than it is in the UK, so we have lessons to learn from the African church. Any implication that traffic is all one way is simply wrong.
- Rather than bemoaning the problems of the African Church, such as the growth of the Prosperity Gospel, we might want to examine our own situation and consider why it is that we exported it there in the first place.
- I fully appreciate that mission agencies, like other charities, need to attract donors and supporters and that one way of doing this is to present a “need” in another part of the world that people in the UK can help meet. This goes with the territory. However, the presentation of any need needs to be respectful of the people on the ground and their realities.
- Africa does need a Saviour – but he isn’t white.
Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few weeks; we’ve been on holiday and now I’m prepping for my PhD viva, which doesn’t leave a lot of mental space for other activities.