‘I don’t think Africa needs a savior. America needs a savior’

The New York Times has a short clip from the film-in-progress Framed. The short features Kenyan photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi as he speaks with high school and college students in the United States about their desire to help people living in other countries. He challenges the students to allow communities to help themselves and says that they should be looking closely at their own country, which faces problems like poverty, racial justice, inequality and more.

“As Americans, we’re inundated with images of hungry African children, but what about the plight of children in this country?” asks director Cassandra Herrman in her accompanying text about the short. “Our child poverty rate is at its highest level in 20 years, with nearly one in four children living in homes without enough food. Among our homeless population, there are nearly 2.5 million children.”

I spoke with Herrman back in June as she and Kathryn Mathers, a visiting scholar in the department of cultural anthropology at Duke University, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film. The pair exceeded their fund-raising goal of $28,000 by bringing in $33,046 (disclosure: I contributed $25 to the campaign). The short clip only gives a preview to a longer documentary that hopes to wrangle with the issues related to how Africa is talked about in the United States and the implications of the frames that are created. In addition to Mwangi, the film features South African professor Zine Magubane and American former voluntourist Pippa Biddle.

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“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,” said Herrman to Humanosphere in June. “[The film] is about trying to understand your footprint and whether you are really making change. What are your motives and are you displacing homegrown initiatives?”

The film and its motivating questions are part of an emerging pair of trends. The first is the increasing calls by people in countries once called the “third world” for Westerners to stop and listen. Some even go as far as to say that they should just go home. The other side is that of the traditional do-gooders who are questioning long-held ideals about Africa and the limits to or possible damage caused by trying to “help.”

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Those two strands are roughly represented by Mwangi and American Pippa Biddle. The ideas shared by Biddle and Mwangi are starting to converge in ways that may ultimately shape the business of doing good around the world. It also parallels discussions happening in the United States about race and justice. While the incidents involving police violence in Missouri and New York are U.S. problems, they are not equally distributed among all groups. White Americans who benefit from the current system can play a role in changing the country, but it is the local communities and the people directly affect who know best and should speak for themselves.

What these examples show is that there are times when the best course of action for some people is to shut up and step aside. Films like Framed will hopefully help show that doing something is not necessarily the best course of action.

“I don’t think Africa needs a savior. America needs a savior,” says Mwangi.

Read my previous story on Framed and full discussion with Herrman here.

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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.