All Ideas
May 4, 2012

Saving Lives in Africa?

2010 Echoing Green Fellow Scott WarrenCross-posted on Huffington Post.

Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" video, in addition to raising awareness about a vicious African warlord through an incredibly effective social media campaign, sparked discussion on an important, yet incredibly complex debate on the Western role in the African continent. The video indisputably educated millions of Americans on a conflict they otherwise would not have been exposed to, and provoked elected officials to act immediately. At the same time, the video's presentation rankled many. The nuances of the conflict and the Lord's Resistance Army were not explored in detail, and filmmaker Jason Russell's 5-year-old son was featured in the film more than any Ugandan. Effective advocacy or white exploitation? Decades after colonial rule on the continent ended, the question provoked by the 28-minute documentary was essentially, "Can, and should, white westerners help Africans in their plight?"

Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer, took a strong stance on the question through his Atlantic piece, "The White Savior Industrial Complex." In the charged writing, Cole claims, "the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex", which "is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege." For Cole, the entire Invisible Children campaign is about white westerners feeling better about themselves through attempting to save poor black Africans. There might be some truth to that. But the reality is much more complex.

Whether we like it or not, Africa is a land where white people can make a difference in the lives of the natives. So should we?

The debate sparked by the Invisible Children video was personal for me. As the son of a Foreign Service Officer, I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for three years during my high school, and visited Harare, Zimbabwe a number of times after my parents moved there. Largely stemming from these experiences, I became active in college with a student-group called STAND, which exists to empower students with the tools to stop and prevent genocide. I became the National Student Director, leading thousands of (mostly privileged, white western) students in efforts to stop the atrocities in Darfur, and played a key role in passing Sudan divestment legislation at Brown University (my alma mater), the City of Providence, and the State of Rhode Island.

Looking back, while I believe in the importance of organizations like STAND, I am now skeptical. There is a part of me that thinks many of the students involved in STAND (even myself) had elements of the "White Savior Industrial Complex," getting involved to feel a little better about our own lives. Indeed, after my STAND experience, I became hyper-local, founding a non-profit organization that exists to empower young Americans to be active democratic participants through a school-based action civics curriculum.

And so, I personally want to believe that Africans can find solutions to African problems -- that we can empower them to take agency in their own lives. But recent events on the ground have shown me that it's not that easy. That reality may trump Cole's noble principles.

Three weeks ago, a van carrying five Kenyans crashed into a truck outside of the rural town of Kakamega. Three of the passengers immediately died, and two were severely injured. The truck's driver survived, healthy enough to steal all the wallets and money from the van's passengers. One of the survivors was my parent's gardener, a man named Nathan.

Nathan called my parents from a rural hospital, where they quickly determined he would not get the care he needed to survive. They had him quickly transferred to a hospital in the capital of Nairobi, where he received multiple X-rays, immediate surgery, and constant care in the ICU department. Nathan had suffered multiple breaks of his pelvis and leg, and had massive internal bleeding, requiring an induced coma for over a week in order to stabilize. He is slowly starting to get better, but the future is still uncertain.

To be clear, Nathan has received tremendous support from his family, effective care from the hospital in Nairobi, and has been aided by an unyielding faith in God. But frankly speaking, he would not be alive if it were not for my parents, who have footed the hefty medical bills and facilitated the transfer to a much better hospital. Additionally, there are some who would argue that it is immense white privilege to have a full-time gardener. But that is how society currently works in Kenya. And with a 3rd grade education, there are few jobs he could have received that treat him as well as my parents have.

Nathan is one of the hardest-working individuals I have ever met. Hoping against hope, I pray that he survives, and thrives once again. But I wonder what Cole would say to his story. Would he criticize my parents for using their white might and privilege to save his life? Would he make an exception?

At its core, this is a microcosm of the Kony debate, the Darfur debate, and the debate surrounding any conflict in Africa. Just as in Nathan's case, white westerners alone cannot cure everything: His family and faith have played integral roles. But, indisputably, white westerners can help. In the case of Kony, American pressure may help enable the international resources necessary to capture the Ugandan warlord and bring him to justice. In the case of Sudan, international pressure, much caused by white westerners, was crucial to South Sudan becoming its own independent country. In the case of Nathan, my parents have ensured he had medical care he would not have been able to afford. What should we do?

I do not proclaim to know the answer. But I do know that we need to show more respect to native Africans than the Invisible Children video did. And we need to recognize that privileged white people can save lives, despite Cole's objections. And we need to pray, hard, for Nathan's health.

Scott Warren is a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow and Co-founder and Executive Director of Generation Citizen.