The Zuri Project Uganda has been my life for the past five years and along with many other talented individuals, I’ve tried my utmost to make it a success. There are many things that we should be proud of, and you can read about many of our achievements in this blog, but there are also many things that have happened that require some introspection from those involved, including myself. One ‘thing’ in particular that I have become acutely aware of since I co-founded The Zuri Project in 2015 has been a concept that has become known as ‘Whte Saviourism’ – and I would like to share my thoughts on the topic with you in this blog.
The issue of white saviourism is broad, polarising and too often overlooked by development practitioners in countries of the colonial West. But it’s a serious issue. I’ve been involved with international development for five years now, and I’ve tried so hard to avoid falling into the imperialistic trappings of brazenly stereotyping Africa as a singular place, Africans as a singular people and the often erroneous action of considering people to be poor, simply because they don’t have a great deal of material wealth.
Yet in my experience, I’ve come to realise that my whiteness, not a term I’ve ever actually used before, inescapably places me at the crux of the very saviourism that I’ve been trying to avoid. Regardless of how hard I try to deflect any faux praise that is directed at me for the work that I’ve done in Uganda, I can’t get away from the fact that I receive it nonetheless.
My whiteness, in Uganda, is my distinguishing feature. I’ve realised that no matter how many times I tell people that it’s my Ugandan colleagues who are responsible for the delivery of a certain project and not myself, they don’t seem to take on board what I’ve said. They assume that perhaps I’m just being modest, when in reality I’m just being honest.
It saddens and disheartens me a great deal that development is still too often seen as something that is concocted by outsiders and then handed down to community members suffering from some kind of ailment, who should then be reassuringly grateful for the work done to them. I’ve interacted with a great deal of white people in Uganda, and the sad reality is that some (but certainly not all) of these people sanctimoniously dish out an un-refined type of neo-colonialism under the auspice of “making a difference”. That might sound harsh, but I’m afraid it’s true. It can take many forms, but kind of child sponsorship is often a favoured travail of the white saviours.
There’s also the good old voluntourism trick. Why not go to Africa; a place where undergraduate students from privileged backgrounds with little and often no practical experience, can volunteer in health centres, teach in schools and look after wild animals, whilst having a jolly good time to boot. Before you scold me, yes, this is how I first experienced sub-Saharan Africa.
And I feel terrible about it.
This is perhaps one of the fundamental reasons why I wanted to set up an organisation. I can honestly say that, in a small way, I wanted to show that it is possible to collaborate with Ugandan organisations and co-create something different and meaningful. In many ways, my decision has been vindicated. I have done things differently and as an organisation, we have challenged many stereotypes and tried to do things the right way.
The right way, as we see it, is to spend nearly all of our money in Uganda on projects and also to have only Ugandans working in our organisation, in the communities that they are from. I’m proud of this, I really am.
But the spectre of white saviourism has been ever present. When I’m in Uganda, people try and impress me and whoever I’m with. Students dance for us; project benefactors make sure they tell me how grateful they are for my work and of course, people stare at me and talk about me as I walk around project sites. Why? Frankly, it’s because I’m white and it’s because they think I’m in charge.
I’ve slowly come to realise that even after trying so hard to persuade people that I’m not, many people see me as just another muzungu, just another white saviour on a mission from God. And it’s for this reason that I’ve decided that The Zuri Project needs to be even more specific when outlining our objectives in Uganda. Whilst we have made progressive steps towards re-defining the roles and responsibilities of our project partners, we simply haven’t done enough to reverse a trend that equates white with right. I have failed, to a degree, to do enough to stop the spread of the pervasive attitude that development is being done to, not done with our Ugandan partners.
Therefore, I have decided that as a trustee of The Zuri Project, I am going to passionately advocate against malpractice in the international development sector and educate and encourage people to only participate in projects that they are truly qualified to be involved with. I also welcome comments and feedback from those that we partner with on how we can better collaborate, as we are far from perfect.
I believe that we still have an important role to play, but we must consciously re-define it. We mustn’t get caught in the trap of believing we’re more important that we are. I’ve known for a long time that the projects we support in Uganda could happen without us (if funding was sourced from elsewhere), but it’s now our responsibility to further nurture relationships that will allow our Ugandan partners to flourish and not just exist.
I hope that in making this bold announcement, we can wholeheartedly renounce the mysterious world of white saviourism, and work in a way that is truly representative of our values and beliefs as an organisation. I feel passionate about community development and I’m proud of the friendships and relationships that I’ve developed as a result of our work as an organisation. But I feel the time is now right to adapt our organisation and become more aware of our position in the world in which we operate.
This is crucial.