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Taking on America’s “Voluntourism”

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Taking on America’s “Voluntourism”

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once described Boniface Mwangi as an important voice with important things to tell the world. Today, Boniface Mwangi has a message for America. “Africa doesn’t need a saviour. America needs to save itself.” Leslie Gordon Goffe explains why.

So important is Boniface Mwangi that his recent visit to the United States to lecture on global activism was documented by a film crew that followed the Kenyan activist as he travelled across “the land of the free”.

By the end of the visit, during which he was astounded by the level of poverty and racism, in typical no-nonsense Mwangi fashion, he came to the conclusion that America should stop at its gates and save its languishing millions first, before sending hordes of its volunteers to save Africa. “It is not Africa that needed saving, but America,” he pleaded, exasperated by how little most Americans seemed to know about Africans’ lives and struggles for political and social justice.

The short film about his visit, in which he talks about the rights and wrongs of volunteering in Africa, was featured on the New York Times website under the title, An African’s Message to America.

In the footage, Mwangi is shown visiting students at Duke University in North Carolina, some of  whom have their eyes and ambitions set on “coming to Africa” to save the poor, and seem oblivious to the struggles America faces on its own soil.

Mwangi is perplexed as to why these young American volunteers would choose to come to Africa to help digging wells, for example, when they have so many social ills in their own communities. Close to a million Americans volunteer to work for the “poor” abroad each year.

Mwangi questions the students about why they do not choose to confront American racism and economic inequality, instead of going abroad.

“I guess,” explains a student who says she wants to become “a voice for women” in Africa and the Middle East, “it is because women there suffer more than women here do.”

A flabbergasted Mwangi says in the video clip: “You don’t know them. They don’t know you. They won’t listen to you.” Mwangi scolds the young Americans: “We have people working every single day [in Africa] to deal with those issues. Why don’t you start local before you go international? Why go abroad if you can serve at the local shelter or the homeless place locally?” He implores the class.

However, Ghanaian Fred Boadu, one of the professors at the university, proffers a different view: “We have to go across cultural boundaries to solve the problems of the world. It is all about the heart and passion.” And Mwangi has plenty of heart and passion, but does not see things Boadu’s way.

He argues that while Americans are bent on saving the world, they neglect, perhaps even deliberately, more important issues in their country, especially the issue of race relations, which calls for broad-based and strong civic and social activism. “Help your own country first,” he stresses.  

However, thousands of young Americans have already signed up to volunteer in Africa this year, despite emerging reports that once in Africa, the overall result of their volunteering can do more harm than the intended good. But as is often said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Volunteering vs. Voluntourism
A study by researchers from South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and from Queen Mary, University of London, “Aids Orphan Tourism”, examined the negative impact foreigners who volunteer short- term as caregivers in African orphanages can have on local people and their livelihoods. Often, the volunteers do tasks that take away jobs locals badly need.  

These volunteers, also dubbed “voluntourists”, the report says, leave a trail of distress in most cases. They bond with sick orphans, then soon leave when their “volunteer  vacation” is over, thus damaging the orphan’s social development and complicating their future care.  “Well-meaning young people should,” the study recommended, “be discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions.”

South African Zine Magubane, has written extensively about the portrayal of Africa in American media and pop culture. She blames, in part, American celebrities: “Whether it’s Bono shilling for AIDS dollars, Angelina and Madonna toting their African offspring, Gwyneth [Paltrow] and David Bowie declaring they are African, or Matt Damon and George Clooney rallying for Darfur, it appears that a new generation of philanthropists have taken up the ‘White Man’s Burden’. You would think there were no African think-tanks, no African universities, no African human rights lawyers,” she says.

This is not to say all young Americans are ignorant.

Pippa Biddle, a 21-year-old “voluntourist”, wrote an essay entitled The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist, about her volunteering sojourn in Tanzania.

“I’ve come to realise that there is one place where being white is not only a hindrance, but negative – most of the developing world,” she says. “I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes…I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother.”


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Written by Leslie Gordon Goffe

Leslie Gordon Goffe was born in London, but has spent much of his life in New York, from where he broadcasts for BBC’s Focus on Africa radio programme and writes for IC Publications and untold others.

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