By Teddy Ruge
It usually starts with a trickle. Then a steady stream. Then a torrent of tweets, Facebook tags, and private messages: “Hey, Teddy! Have you seen this?”
By the 25th one, I can usually guess the gist of the article they are trying to get me to read and react to. Someone, somewhere bungled their well-meaning attempt to help Africa (yes, the whole continent).
I can’t say the call to action isn’t deserved. For the better part of this decade, I’ve been part of a growing legion of Africans writing take-down pieces against white savior delusions of grandeur. Ashton Kutcher’s tone-deaf antimalarial net giveaway? Yup, I was there. Jason Sadler and his million t-shirts for Africa? Front and center. Mindy Bugdor’s misplaced Warrior Princess fantasy? Guilty as charged. Justine Sacco’s whiteness as a defense against catching AIDS? Yeah, she’s a mainstay in the slide decks I use for my talks.
This week, former gap year adventurer Louise “with the angel hair” Linton is fast falling from grace by way of public backlash against her ill-advised fantasy-cum-memoir, In Congo’s Shadow. The synopsis for her 290-page book reads like a preview for an after-school television special: “In Congo’s Shadow is the inspiring memoir of an intrepid teenager who abandoned her privileged life in Scotland to travel to Zambia as a gap year student where she found herself inadvertently caught up in the fringe of the Congolese War.”
The budding actress from Edinburgh, Scotland published an excerpt from her book in UK’s The Telegraph on Friday, which described her supposed encounter with warring rebels in the “jungles” of Zambia. Refreshingly, outraged Zambians expressed their frothing disdain on Twitter — proud, aggressive Africans clapping back against “single stories,” armed with enough literary eloquence to restock the library at Alexandria.
The swiftness of public rebuke isn’t unexpected. The meme-ification and justice-through-parody isn’t unforeseen.
But we keep using the same tactics, expecting to see different results. We keep expecting our clever think pieces and memes will prevent future wannabe white saviors from tone-deaf, self-aggrandizing acts.
Louise Linton is the latest of the many bulbous, puss-filled pimples on our chins that we frown at, poke, and pop. Because ultimately, it is easier to go after the stale colonial mindset of the latest transgressor than addressing the true cause.
We rebel against the easy targets, the sacrificial lambs. We shout from the thrones of our social media pulpits because it is the only thing we imagine to be able to do. “Clicktivism” and its cousin, delightful snarkiness, run wild. We all fall victim to the deliciousness and instant gratification of holding someone accountable for their ill-advised actions.
Eventually, the self-righteous rebuke soon dies down and we recede to our pedantic and lifeless commentary on the Kardashians and Bey. Most of us don’t think too hard about the social infrastructure that begets the white saviors, lest we get a glimpse of our complicity in the intransigence of the status quo.
White savior-isms catch us by surprise because, like ill-timed pimples, we fail to do the things that would prevent another one from popping up.
But look we must in the mirror. The lax editors at The Telegraph aren’t the ultimate problem. Louise “with the angel hair” Linton and her ilk — who are only treading on centuries of unchecked inbred superiority complexes — are but a symptom of a larger problem. It’s time we looked deep into the mirror and admitted the obvious.
We, dear Africans, are the problem.
Louise Linton happened because we allowed her to happen. We let gap year kids run amok on the continent to start orphanages and teach in our schools and even play Doctor Without License with our children because we haven’t woken up from generations of conditioning that have trapped our minds in a slave mentality. We let untrained 16-year olds build wells without a single piece of engineering certification while our universities churn out inexperienced graduates. Western passports have more privilege and freedom of movement on our own continent than we do. It’s easier for Linton to travel to Zambia and 53 other countries in Africa than for citizens of 54 African countries to get into Scotland. We normalize whiteness as an automatic license to operate in our countries, on our bodies.
The enslavers left. The colonialists left. The physical chains that kept us captive have long vanished. But we are still trapped by the invisible hooks that remain lodged deep in our minds. We’ve silently been passing our colonized mentality on from one generation to another.
Those women “clapping and dancing at the arrival of white SUVs in the village” are passing it on to their children who are now running alongside the white SUVs yelling, “Hey Mister! Give me money.”
As a Ugandan, I am appalled at the 10,000 plus NGOs in my country, many founded and staffed by inexperienced (but highly paid) gap-year kids playing out their colonial fantasies at the expense of brown people in the name of doing good.
Can we truly subscribe to and take ownership of the Africa Rising narrative when we can’t build and manage our own highways, schools, or halls of governance, and our presidents are flying out of the country to treat a flu?
We jump on Louise, Mindy, and Jason Russell for their failures, but fail to look at the role we play in perpetuating the systems that allow these people and their tired tropes to not only exist, but to thrive in our midst.
As we criticize, we are secretly hoping that someone else fixes this. We point out the problem — and assume that it’s someone else’s job to repair the damage. After all, someone else always comes to fix our roads, our hospitals, our schools, our water wells. Why aren’t they coming to fix the Louise’s of the world?
“It’s 2016!” we scream indignantly.
But, dear Africans, no one is coming. No matter how erudite we are in our soapbox clap backs, there’ll be another Louise next year. That is, unless we wake up and address the conditions that allowed Louise to come and give a Coke and a toothy smile to Zimba.
If there’s anything we can take away from the rising backlash against misrepresentation of the continent, it is this: there is a growing educated and connected class of Africans whose rising agency represents the shearing headwinds unwitting white saviors must navigate in their attempt to use the continent as a training device for sainthood. It is here where I am hopeful that we’ll be introspective enough to address our culpability.
This post originally appeared on The Development Set, and is reprinted here with permission.
Teddy Ruge has over a decade of experience helping African and international organisations use design, social media and technology to engage with the public, maintain a competitive edge and foster a global presence. Ruge is the founder and CEO of Raintree Farms, as well as the co-founder of remit.ug and Hive Colab. His articles have appeared in major media outlets including the Guardian, New York Times, CNN and the Globe and Mail.