Documentary questions motives for Westerners ‘helping’ Africa

Nearly a decade has passed since Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina penned the satirical essay “How to Write About Africa” for Granta. The biting piece called out the way that people talk about, write about and depict the continent of Africa.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

The piece resonated with and challenged many of the Westerners who worked on the continent. While it is still often cited to show the problems with how Africa is characterized, the very problems that Wainaina skewers are ever present. A recent advertisement by Save the Children Australia came under criticism for deploying the guilt-based tactics of showing suffering children (also known as poverty porn). The lack of change is the motivation behind the production of a documentary film called Framed*.

The film seeks to answer the question, what is behind the West’s fascination with “saving” Africa? Filmmaker Cassandra Herrman is working alongside Kathryn Mathers, a visiting scholar in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, to investigate the question and expose the problems with how Africa is depicted. The film features Wainaina, Kenyan photographer Boniface Mwangi, South African professor Zine Magubane and American former voluntourist Pippa Biddle.

“We are trying to take a step back and look at the underlying cultural consciousness that is formed by the limited vocabulary and visuals about Africa,” said Herrman in an interview with Humanosphere.

She argues that before conversations about aid and development can even start, Westerners have to consider how they think about Africa and its countries. Part of problem starts with popular media. Adam Sandler’s latest film, Blended, is an attempt at a romantic comedy set in Africa. The trailer contains the usual shots of a safari and the gregarious African service worker. There was push back to the film from the usual Africa watchers, but the very fact that such a film would be made speaks volumes to Herrman.

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“Something is not clicking in the cultural consciousness that a film like Blended would happen,” she said. “Countless Americans have no other reference point for Africa. I think that is highly problematic.”

Herrman and Mathers did not intend to include Western voices as a main part of their film, but the story of Pippa Biddle made it apparent that there was a need to show how perceptions about global poverty can shape a person. Pippa Biddle’s reflection on the problems with Voluntourism spread across the internet this February. She reflected on her trips to the Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Haiti and elsewhere in a blog post. She soon found that because she lacked any real skills, she was really only making herself feel better, not helping in the way she thought she was.

Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.

Biddle’s perceptions about Africa and other developing countries was shaped by interactions with advocacy campaigns when she was younger. The simple narratives about people in need of help sparked her into action. She was then faced with the fact that the reality was not the same as what she was told. Herrman worries that these misconceptions are shaping the way things are done in developing countries and may be harming what is already being done.

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“Helping someone in Africa feels good and uncomplicated,” she said. “What you do is then negate all of the actions that are already happening. There are local players who are trying to figure out what is going on.”

The point of the film is not to criticize people. Herrman admits that she was a volunteer in Kenya and lived there for two years during her twenties. Her hope is that the film will challenge people to step back and check their assumptions. Then ask how these assumptions are fueling certain actions. At one point in the film’s trailer, Mwangi challenges an audience of American college students to consider the way that people in the US are marginalized.

“It’s an interesting thing to look at why it is comfortable to help an Africa, versus the complexities of addressing racial injustices experienced by African-Americans in this country,” reflected Herrman on the idea.

It is not a matter of further defining the us and them paradigm. Rather, she wants to show that collective indignation at injustice should apply to everywhere, including one’s home country.

“It is about trying to understand your footprint and whether you are really making change,” she said about the film. “What are your motives and are you displacing homegrown initiatives?”

*Herrman and Mathers are trying to fund the documentary through a Kickstarter campaign. Disclosure: I contributed $25 to the making of the film because I personally support the idea of exposing the way that people talk and think about Africa.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • philippeboucher

    collective indignation at injustice should apply to everywhere, including one’s home country: very right maybe even starting in one’s home country? so many people voluntouring to ‘discover/help’ poverty and ignoring it where they live.