Saviours on Tour
“The trip was so inspiring, you know? Like, I really made a difference. I just feel so humbled too, because they had nothing, but they were so happy. We can really learn a lot from these people,” said the teenage girl with a slight dose of smugness to an audience of fellow year 11 students.
Those gathered around her nodded sagely, impressed by their friend’s newfound humanitarianism.
I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Students from our school’s annual month-long mission trip had just returned from South East Asia, and luckily for those orphanage kids, being a missionary was currently “in”.
The return of my classmates followed a predictable pattern: discussions about how lucky we are, comments about the “impressive” happiness of the locals and, of course, at least one Insta post featuring smiling children of colour.
One of the most popular locations for these kinds of voluntourism projects is Ghana in West Africa, thanks to its English-speaking locals and low rates of violent crime. It also happens to be the country that I grew up in.
Ads on TV for various charities often show giggling Ghanaian children as they gather around volunteers, dancing and singing. Social media statuses posted by westerners, although well-intentioned, condescendingly praise the children’s attitudes and thankfulness for the donated toys and school supplies. Newsflash: give any kid a present, regardless of what country you’re in, and they’ll be pretty excited.
I saw these smiles in real life, as local students played in dusty schoolyards during their lunch breaks. But I also saw them with their heads down and backs bent, sweeping their classrooms clean before the start of each school day. In those moments, they certainly weren’t smiling or laughing – they looked just like any other kids doing chores.
There were my Ghanaian classmates at my international school, whose wealthy and successful parents were far better educated than the gap-year kids who volunteer to teach English in schools across Africa. I went to birthday parties with these students and we played tag together in the playground. Sometimes, they’d cheat to win a game – just like everyone does.
The Ghanaian adults in my life had their flaws and their strengths too. They could read and write, and worked hard to support their families. They weren’t waiting to be saved by a western charity. Faustina, our housekeeper, would tell me traditional West African fables at bedtime, and Lambert, our security guard, would sit on our sun-drenched concrete driveway and help me draw pictures with coloured chalk. They were patient and kind, but they didn’t simply smile serenely and pat me on the head when I was being a brat. Like anyone who has to deal with small children on a regular basis, I have no doubt they sometimes they itched to give me a smack.
Then there was the couple who worked for us before Faustina and Lambert. One day, they just stopped turning up. My parents eventually found out through the grapevine that the bank had accidentally deposited a huge chunk of cash into their account. They’d withdrawn it all, then fled to a neighbouring country. With enough money in their pockets to set them up for life, the couple had vanished: not exactly the actions of people who are blissfully happy with their working-class lives. Like anyone would, they’d grabbed their chance at a more comfortable lifestyle and ran with it. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it makes things a whole lot easier, and they knew it.
Flawed and complex, Ghanaians are far from clumsy caricatures of desperately grateful orphans or an entire nation stuck in a hopeless cycle of poverty. Across the western world, we lump all of these people together and romanticise their “simple” or “un-materialistic” lives, because it’s a compliment to treat them like martyrs, right? In reality, this characterisation only perpetuates a damaging paternalistic attitude. Adjectives like “innocent” and “happy” also imply a helplessness, which serves to justify the good, but often misguided, intentions of voluntourists.
People who live in developing countries aren’t perfect because they’re still just that: people. They have good and bad days, and do good and bad things. So, by all means, go and volunteer at that orphanage or teach at that school. Any experience that broadens your perspectives or lets you explore a new part of the world is a valuable one.
But instead of taking a selfie with the locals, have a conversation and learn a little something about who they are. You’d be amazed to see how many groups of men sit around tiny radios every week, listening to English soccer games and barracking passionately for their favourite teams. Or the women who spend hours in salons getting their hair braided, gossiping about their love lives. Cross the divide of your privilege and connect with someone over something light-hearted or silly, and you’ll make a real friend.
And please, stop putting an entire continent of multidimensional people into the victim box so that you can play the hero. A stereotype is a stereotype, no matter how you spin it.
Cover by Madi Robson