White Savior Trope – Is Volunteering in Africa Bad?

I did my first volunteering trip in Uganda recently and knew it was inevitable I’d receive ‘white savior’ comments and hate as I shared my experience. This brought up a lot of different feelings and thoughts as I tried to navigate volunteering without being a part of the white savior trope. Was it even possible? I did a little digging to educate myself and others who are considering volunteering trips. Let’s get into it. 

NOTE: I’ve received permission to use all photos from the parents/guardians of the children and/or the volunteer organization I was working with. I’ve also received permission to share Lydia’s thoughts on this topic.

What’s the White Savior Trope? 

The white savior trope is used to describe white people that want to ‘help’ people that are less privileged than them and are often BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour). The problem isn’t that these people want to help others, rather it lies behind the reasons why they’re (usually) leaving their home country and going to volunteer in places like Africa.

The problem with white saviorism is that these people come from a place where they believe BIPOC people need and they know what’s best for them. They use opportunities such as volunteering or missionary work to feel superior and to make it known that they are ‘making a difference’, whether or not they’re aware of coming from this mindset. These people also seek out praise for the ‘good work’ they’re doing and want to be recognized for how ‘selfless’ they’ve been.

White saviors don’t stop to think about how partaking in a volunteer opportunity or doing other charity work in different parts of the world may affect those who are receiving the help. It’s rooted in issues of white supremacy and those who benefit from white privilege. With that being said, I argue that not all those who volunteer abroad are white saviors and we’ll get into that shortly!

How the White Savior Trope is Revealed

There are many ways in which you may see the white savior trope appear. Here are a few examples I came across during my own research: 

  • Voluntouring – This occurs when you combine a quick volunteer experience with tourism. Those who ‘voluntour’ don’t usually have the skills of specialization needed to truly have a positive impact.
  • Missionary work – While this type of work is usually rooted in good intentions, they don’t often have work qualifications that are necessary. They may also subconsciously come from a place of superiority.
  • Teaching English – Once again, many white saviors come to Africa without any proper teaching qualifications.

My Volunteer Experience in Uganda

As a white woman who’s just recently completed a volunteer program in Uganda through Worldpackers, I’d like to provide some background information. It’s important that you understand what my volunteer experience was like before I get into the other side of the white savior trope argument.

As I’ve been growing my travel blog, Instagram and TikTok accounts, I’ve started working with travel brands. Worldpackers reached out to me to work together to promote their platform and the many volunteer/work-trade experiences they offer. They paid me to apply to an opportunity I was interested in. I was then expected to go through the experience and share how it went with my audience. There were no specific deliverables but I made various TikToks and Instagram Reels in the form of a daily vlog to show what I did each day.

I ended up choosing an experience with Rebuild Hope Children Foundation in Jinja, Uganda after speaking with the founder and host, Emma. Before deciding on an experience, I went through the many reviews this particular one had and done a little research into the organization. I was already travelling through South Africa at the time, while I worked remotely and had to make my way up to Europe so stopping in Uganda made the most sense.

About Rebuild Hope

Rebuild Hope is a school with 215 students coming from low income or single mother households in the Jinja area. They started building the school in April 2021 and it was open and running at the start of 2022. Everything for the school is funded by donations. This includes school supplies, meals for the children, teacher’s salaries (~$3/day) etc. There are currently 4 classrooms with children ages 3-9 and they’re currently fundraising to secure land nearby to build more classrooms and a medical centre!

The founders, Emma and Lydia, also have up to 10 orphans living in their home. They feed these children, provide them with a safe place to stay, cover their school fees once they’re old enough to attend boarding schools and give them endless love.

Besides the donations, they rely on the help of volunteers to build awareness of what they’re doing on a global scale, as well as help with different things. There were many volunteer positions to choose from. The one I applied to and ended up doing was filmmaking and social media to help expand their online presence. With that being said, I wasn’t just doing their social media. I was also helping the teachers at the school most days for a few hours.

Throughout the entire experience, I did my best to respect their culture and how they did things at school and home. I only provided feedback and suggestions when asked. Of course, I’m not saying all of this to make it seem as if I was the perfect volunteer and didn’t play the part of the white savior. When I started receiving hate comments on my videos about the experience, I realized I hadn’t done enough research about the white savior trope before taking on this opportunity and that’s not okay. I should have thought about it more critically beforehand.

The Other Side of the Argument

There are always two sides to an argument or debate and during my own volunteer experience, I came to see the other side. Firstly, I think it’s interesting to note that everyone (or nearly everyone) stating that volunteer trips are bad or only have a negative impact on the children of Africa, come from a place of privilege and are usually white. It’s safe to say that anyone who’s aware of the white savior trope has a high degree of education. 

With all of that in mind, what do people from these African countries have to say about ‘white saviors’? I spoke directly to Lydia – the Head of Operations and Emma – the founder, of Rebuild Hope school what she (a woman of colour, from Uganda) thought of this trope. 

A Local’s Opinion

Lydia marking students’ work

Lydia explained that they are continuously searching for volunteers for many reasons. One being that rich Ugandans don’t tend to take care of poor Ugandans. She explained that the mentality in Uganda is “if you’re rich you remain rich, if you’re poor then you remain poor”. Lydia knows that Muzungus (what they call white people) want to help Africans and she said they’re looking to accept any help they can get. She told me that volunteers bring more help than locals because if poorer people need help from the rich in Uganda, they have to work for them before they will do anything in return. Meanwhile, volunteers are willing to take their time and invest it into doing what they can to support the organization.

When speaking to Lydia, I also asked her about using and sharing photos of the children from the school on social media. She explained that the parents of the children at the school have given permission to the foundation to take photos/videos and share it on social media. They don’t care that their child is being shared online if it means that they can provide them with a better education through raising more money for the organization.

I asked Lydia if she’s seen any of the volunteers acting superior to the children, teachers, etc and out of the many volunteers they’ve hosted since 2021, there was only one who displayed bad intentions.

How to Avoid Being a White Savior

I personally think that the white savior trope isn’t as black and white as it’s made out to be online. It boils down to some specifics that determine whether or not you’re contributing to the problem.

  • The organization you’re volunteering with – Do you know where the money is going? If it’s a big organization chances are, you won’t know exactly where the money is being spent.
  • Your involvement with the children – If you’re choosing to work with children at a school or orphanage, you may be interrupting their education. It could also lead to attachment, causing issues when you leave after a few weeks.
  • Your attitude – Are you going into this volunteer opportunity thinking that your way is better than their way? You should do your best to let go of any feelings of superiority, as well as your ego. If you’re truly there to lend a helping hand, you should see yourself as an equal, if not someone who can learn from their local culture.
  • Consistency – Will you be a consistent anti-racist ally when you’re home? Or are you only willing to help out when it benefits you in some way?
  • How you share on social media – This can be tricky because people are always going to find faults with what is shown on social media. With that being said, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Ask yourself, would you want a similar photo of yourself shared? Do you have permission to share that photo/video? Always ask to make sure it’s okay before posting. And lastly, who is the content about? If you’re the centre of attention and you’re looking for admiration, you shouldn’t be posting.
  • Supporting projects afterwards – If your work with the organization ends as soon as you leave the country, what was the point? Are you willing to provide additional support once you’re home again or aren’t physically in the same place?
  • Questioning your motives – Have you stopped to question yourself? Why do you want to do this volunteer trip and have you considered doing volunteer work at home?

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the white savior trope is an extremely complex topic. It’s crucial to do your own research into the topic before you decide to go on a volunteering trip. While questioning your motives, you might realize that volunteering might not be the best option. If that’s the case, you can always help by donating directly to vetted organizations and/or helping those in need from your own community. That’s not to say volunteer trips are always bad and should be avoided. I think volunteering with the right intentions can have a positive impact on those seeking help, so long as they’re asking for it!

That’s all I have to say about the topic at the moment. I welcome any and all feedback as I continue to learn more about the impact white saviors have on different communities around the globe.

I’ll be back shortly with a new blog but you can keep up with my travels over on my Instagram and TikTok, where I share info each day!

Cheers,

Amy xx

P.S. If you want to contribute to Rebuild Hope’s School and other initiatives, you can donate to their Go Fund Me here!

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