/ 26 June 2020

End voluntourism and the white saviour industrial complex

Renee Bach, an American missionary who moved to Jinja, Uganda at age 18. With no formal medical training, Bach started experimenting with medical procedures she’d learn from YouTube. (Image: wjct.org)


Travelling to Africa from various corners of the world are widely diverse people — returning migrant workers, researchers, teachers, African vacationers and foreign tourists. All these tell a story of the underlying systems, present and past, that influence and determine how humans move in this world.

One particular image is inescapable —  missionaries, mainly white Americans. Clad in their loudly labelled T-shirts with slogans like “God Loves Uganda” and “We Love Uganda”, you can’t miss them at any terminal with flights headed to East Africa.

The existence of these missionaries might not concern an unconscious mind, after all, we are socialised to respect religion, to need religion as it was deftly packaged and violently honed into our psyche by colonialists. But when one asks the question: “What does Africa need to thrive in the 21st century?”, voluntourism should not be the answers. 

It probably was on one these short-term missionary tours that brought 18-year-old Renee Bach to Uganda in 2008.  Unskilled with just a high school diploma, Bach quickly established a nongovernmental organisation, joining the long travelled road of the white saviour industrial complex  — that self-aggrandising journey that is built on centuries of imperialism and reductionist imaginary solutions to problems that people battling colonial legacies need.

At her NGO, Serving His Children, Bach, relying only on her missionary righteousness of her calling to save black babies, specifically black babies in Africa, would be involved in what was effectively a medical experiment in which at least 105 children died in Eastern Uganda.

In one of the most chilling cases before the high court in Uganda, parents of children who died at the NGO-run centre have brought a civil suit against Bach seeking a declaration on violation of the right to life, health, dignity and freedom from psychological torture. The suit also seeks to declare actions of the Bach and her NGO as discrimination based on race and social status, an issue their lawyer Primah Kwagala emphasised must open the eyes of the people and the system in Uganda to racial justice.

As the global protests against racial injustice sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many black Americans grow, Africans on the continent are showing up to reiterate Africa’s voice, too. Chanting and hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter is not a choice: it is and has always been the struggle of our life. 

A revolution in a pandemic is not an everyday occurrence. Right in the moment of only essential movement being allowed, we must look to the essentials we need to build a just and fair world. We should be unwavering in identifying the systems and practices from which to physically and consciously distance from long after the Covid-19 threat is gone.

Throughout this time, local humanitarians’ work has been more visible than ever before, from community education on behaviour changes and prevention to closing the safety net gaps left by fledgeling economies. 

Writer and social activist Alice Walker said we are the ones we have been waiting for. And the decolonisation movement that is gaining momentum on the heels of Black Lives Matter is long overdue. 

The coronavirus’s devastating effect on Western societies has already debunked belief in what systems and approaches the world needs, which are often pushed down on countries in Africa and the Global South. 

It’s time to divest from voluntourism. The push to overhaul the very systems that allow violent experimenting on black bodies in black countries should be amplified. New approaches to our work among our people should centre on dismantling both local and global unequal systems instead of donor demands and visions of Africa.

Voluntourism is rooted in unequal power, unequal wealth that is built on the exploitation of generations of people in the Global South. It is sustained by the belief in white supremacy, white intentions are all that matters and often requires infantilisation of the people. How else do we get all those images of Africa being represented by abandoned children? 

The institutionalisation of childcare is one of the most harmful practices that ignore local responses and social safety nets. The boom in orphanages and fraudulent foreign adoptions preys on the weakest among us for the benefit of those at ease with the violent systems that create vulnerable orphans in the first place.

Poverty is not an individual’s creation. It is built by colonialism and the pillaging of resources by networks of political ruling elites, mercenaries and multinationals into global capitalist systems.

An average young Ugandan is underemployed or unemployed but organisations will accept to work with a white 18-year-old from Utah with no awareness of the realities of where they wish to volunteer.

African volunteers in African countries are less likely to be taken on because, on the whole, Africans still face many barriers to safe and regular human mobility. In 2020, it is easier for an American volunteer to go to 65% of African countries visa-free while Africans can travel to about 53% of Africa without a visa. The work on our hands remains enormous.

Africans are still some of the most restricted peoples worldwide. Overhauling imperial systems, the abolition of racist international travel control regimes and securitisation of African borders are key battles. 

The Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racism protests are an African struggle, too. Yes, the manifestations of racism and racialised power might be different but the root is the same: white supremacy, patriarchal capitalism.

The imperial powers that remain, we uphold ourselves. We must address gaps in our political consciousness that endorse that white is right and continually feed into systems designed without us and against us.

Rosebell Kagumire is a feminist writer and award-winning blogger. She is the curator and editor of African Feminism- AF, a platform that documents narratives and experiences of African women on the continent and in the diaspora. She’s most outspoken on social accountability, active citizenship, women’s rights, the rights of migrants and social justice.