In Defense of White Saviors

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by Maleele Choongo @misszambia

Armed with good intentions and not much else, African expert and war historian, Louise Linton, jotted an article on the “nightmare” that was her one year stay in Zambia. This unleashed a slew of Africans, namely Zambians, who found her narrative a bit fallacious, dehumanizing, and other unimportant things. Linton, whose brain has been “frozen” since encountering a Congolese war on Zambian soil, vacated Twitter and has said little since the Zambian onslaught. I am one of the few Zambian Linton supporters, and I want her to come out of hiding. She did not survive the jungles of Zambia to live like this. I am writing this in defense of Louise and other white saviors past, present and future.

Because Louise is enamored by pint sized Zambian girls like me misnaming her, I’ll refer to her as Lint onwards. This is in no reference to the pesky white-greyish fibers that appear on your clothes at the most inopportune times (where do they come from, how do I get rid of them, you ask?); or navel lint — the kind that kept you picking at your belly button with a frustrated fix as a kid, until in adulthood you decide it is a waste of time. It’s just Lint.
Her story fleshes out not unlike many college-aged Westerners who pack their bags every summer in need of an “escape”. For whatever reason, the “call” to do good work always seems to be louder from halfway across the globe than it is in their own backyards. I get it, what better playground for one’s self-interest than a community of Africans who never asked for you, but will tolerate you anyway?
Back to Lint. Day and night, she tossed a rock onto a map, waiting for it to land somewhere she could stroke her ego. A lady of simple needs, her only pleas were that the place be poor and far. A few tries and a hand cramp later, the pebble finally landed on a big blob of land labeled “Africa”.
“Poor and far,” her father murmured. 

She packed light: 6 t-shirts, 0 qualifications, and 3 trousers. And so Papa Lint fetched a Y shaped stick, fastened his little Lint to an elastic band and slingshotted her into the continent.
Now I mentioned that Lint had simple requests, but things change. Sometimes “poor and far” just won’t cut it. Makes for a good Facebook profile picture, yes, but you start to realize its nothing you’ve never seen before in any other part of the world. After all, 1 in 10 Scots live under extreme poverty; some children in the country are so underfed, an advisory was issued to some 300 schools after teachers noticed the impact poverty had on education

So you can understand why Lint was in the mood for some good, old fashioned African blood baths and savagery. The kind you read about in books non-Africans write about. But Zambians had other ideas — they were in the mood for some humanized, day-to-day snoozefest life which didn’t undermine their dignity or link them to a conflict they simply had no ties with. Actually, for over five decades, Zambia hasn’t had the decency to afford its voluntourists the civil war fantasy they very well deserve. It’s a bad habit. How would you feel if you spent a whole day learning Arabic phrases for your trip to China, and once you got there, everyone’s response was a raised brow? Definitely not stupid, but maybe a bit jolted and unappreciated. Had Lint and her angel pasta hair known that the “villagers” felt they weren’t going to play into her exotification, she may have remained in Scotland, where a reporting of more than 270,000 crimes over the course of one year was considered lowest recorded level in 40 years. Zambians and our penchant for peace failed her, a truth I’m not too proud to admit.

Underwhelmed by the civility, Lint decided to pen a revisionist pulp fiction, in which she manages to make herself the “central character”, albeit doing nothing more but gazing on the alleged death of “thousands”. How many of us can boast such a feat?

Ever eager to disappoint, my fellow Zambians attacked my pasty protagonist with the most trivial of tools: facts. A weak move, in my opinion. But I am cut from a different cloth, I suppose; a cloth woven with empathy for white saviors and, admittedly, thick threads of narcissism. You see, I too have traveled from faraway lands only to be foisted into the throes of poverty, ethnic tensions, encounters with strange peoples and creatures and so forth. Allow me to tell you about my life in America.
I first have to admit that I was not as noble as Lint in my late teens: I didn’t fetishize the impoverished as a portal to satiate my egocentricity. Perhaps it is something that will grow on me when the time is right. My ignorance about foreign places definitely rivals with hers, though. I also have to admit that I am not as creative as Lint, and can’t be bothered to rely on anything than reality to tell my tale.

Life in the West was ok. The food, meh. But, I made friends with the good local people-hipsters who ran communities of color out of their neighborhoods so that they could erect vegan, gluten and GMO-free coffee shrines/shops to complain about capitalism and oppressive social structures. They cared very much about animals, cried over the ones their fellow countrymen had slain, but said little about the poorly paid agrarian laborers who stimulated their vegan diets. I learned their language, a dialect of English that frequents words like “problematic”, “I don’t think anyone should be able to say it…”, “wah wah wah” and “namaste”. In the summers I got lonely, because when they weren’t hiking or gentrifying, they would often find some far-off place, some people to “save”; although, those people seemed no better off with or without their teenage rescuers. My friends later explained, as they thumbed through for the perfect Instagram filter, “I went to help them, but really they helped me.” Unable to relate on that level, I found special comfort in my bond with Chuck, my pint sized, white Maltese toy poodle.

I tried to establish a comfortable routine, but I soon learned that the West is rife with hidden danger. I witnessed random acts of violence, mass incarcerations of people of color, homicides documented almost every day on the 5 o’clock news, trickling into the hashtags on social media platforms. In the States, statistics maintain that every 28 hours, a black person is killed by the police. In a country that seems yet to be convinced that #BlackLivesMatter, I wondered what the police would do to a skinny bantu girl with kinky hair that refused to bow at gravity’s request. This question was answered. Public places were heavily policed, giving me a more fear than it did comfort.

Relieved to shake the image of National Guard Soldiers patrolling the subway stations, which is triggering, to say the least, I slip into a train. Mashed between sweaty bodies, I cling on to a pole on the train for support and avoid thinking about the last time it was sanitized, as I had never seen any janitorial services performed. I have, however, seen human defecation on floors and seats and rats scurrying through the train cars on multiple occasions. One study showed that over 600 microbes were found in these subways, so I could very well be going home every day with my hand caked in fecal matter. Vacuuming in the smell of urine through my nostrils, I channel my inner Lint and remind myself how I’d come to be a central character in this horror story.
How I had done nothing to stop the country’s heroin epidemic, which “has hit every white socioeconomic class.” The place was rife with crises — water with lead infested pipes will affect children’s brain development, an AIDS epidemics, and millions living in poverty, to name a few. Fear and anger for the children consumed my thoughts.

I was losing hope, the feminist in me was especially distraught — the country that had placed man on the moon had failed to put a woman in the Oval. Should I flee to Zambia, where my Vice President is a woman? Or maybe Rwanda, where women have continued to outnumber men in parliament.
How had I come to be in such a place and for what? And perhaps this is where I side most with Lint because I believe we both have the following recommendation: Fight those urges and don’t visit Zambia, or any other African country, in hopes of “saving” it or its people. You will be disappointed at how utterly unimportant and useless you are in the trajectory of their development. The audacity of Africans to assume their agency, even in your presence, will shock and drain you.

“But I’m a white SAVIOR!!!”, you say. You can’t help yourself, and no one understands that more than I do. Luckily for you, the world is so rampant with systematic oppression and violence toward people of color, you can stay right at home and still have at it. So as an alternative to trekking across the world to pretend you genuinely have any use or care for African people, you can stop cherry-picking the people of color you think are worth fake-caring about. At worst, this will at least save you money on a pricey plane ticket, which you can then use to get that shiny new white savior superhero costume you’ve been budgeting for. At best, you can actually be of some use; even if you don’t get to put “finally confronted the skeletons in my closet” on your resume. Go forth, white savior. This is your fight.

Photo: Shutterstock

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