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Why we need to talk more about western do-gooders in Malawi. By Takondwa Priscilla Semphere


Photo from: @barbiesaviour on Instagram. When I was in college in the United States, Americans I interacted with didn’t often know much about Malawi. The few who did usually knew it in one of a few ways. As a place they had visited for some sort of volunteering stint with the Peace Corps or another such organization, as the site of Children of the Nations, which my small church in Amherst supported, or that place Madonna adopted her children from. None of these associations were surprising to me. Malawi is, after all, one of the poorest and most geopolitically inconspicuous countries in the world and it seems to be a one-stop-shop for the west’s charity. Charity coloured my own childhood in Malawi. I attended a small, Christian primary school in Area 14, Lilongwe, a ministry of the Capital City Baptist Church. The school, which was founded with the aim of providing high-quality education to low-income children, relies heavily on charity and as such, was frequented by mostly white, mostly western visitors who stopped over to sing with us and play with us and have their heartstrings tugged into giving to the school. We were also annual recepients of Samaritan’s Purse’s ‘Operation Christmas Child’ (which itself has received all sorts of critiques). I’ve often wondered about those do-gooders who visited. I wonder what they thought of their visits. I wonder what they went on to do, after telling us, through teary eyes, how inspiring we were to them. I joke that my picture is probably up on a fridge somewhere in Ohio, and that my schoolmates and I likely formed a big part of someone’s moving college essay. As I’ve grown older, my perception of do-gooders has grown complicated, as things do when you begin to read and think and engage critically with the world. A significant moment was in 2017, when my scholarship program sent about 40 college students (myself included), most of whom were American, to four different locations (Laos, India, Cameroon and Peru) in the global south for a compulsory “International Immersion,” which was intended to make us “more globally minded”. The trip was a shitshow. My cohort of eight went to South India, to a small village in the backwaters of Allepey, where for two weeks, we taught women old enough to be our mothers and grandmothers “business skills.” The organization we were working for was headed by a British woman who raved about how much the locals loved her and how she’d fallen in love with Kochi years before and decided to stay. It was clear to me, even in the infancy of my political awakening, that it was ironic that she did not seem awake to what her presence as someone from the colonizer’s country meant when contextualized in history. Her presence in India was enabled precisely by the sorts of patterns of dependency that were established through colonial rule. I knew, from my discomfort, that everything about our trip was designed for people like her. It was put together with white, western students in mind and did not at all consider the politics of our presence there, or the long-term impact that our small group of unskilled students was [not] having on the community. I felt guilty. I spent the trip ranting with one of my friends, who was, themself, from Syria, and no stranger to the violence of imperialist conquest. Ever since then, my discomfort with volunteer programs and western volunteerism, particularly in my country, has only intensified. I have become vehemently critical of programs and individuals that purport to be ‘making a difference’ in countries like mine. I believe that there is still a great need for rigorous discourse around the presence of usually white, western voluntourists who frequent our shores under the guise of altruism. This past week, I have been especially enraged, after one such do-gooder posted a rather reductionist tweet to an American celebrity. He touted his own charity work without any hint of nuanced analysis, and refused to as much as consider any of the (minimal but meaningful) backlash he received. The exchange was revelatory, and reminded me of some of the things that make critiquing volunteers difficult. Do-gooders mean well: As my sister in tweets and decolonial love, Zilanie, put it, “The road to hell is paved with ‘do gooder’ intentions.” Folks who leave home behind and come to our countries often do so with good intent, and genuinely believe that they are making a difference. But good intentions, it turns out, pale in comparison to the systemic stagnancy that volunteerism contributes to. Do-gooders are often endorsed/congratulated by locals: This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of critiquing volunteers, especially those who come out of the west or operate in tandem with colonialist patterns of western saviorism is that there are many, many people who are from here who have good things to say about them. These compliments are not entirely vacuous. Of course it is a good thing to build a school, or dig a well, or teach young children ABCs. However, if the only thing we base this verdict of goodness on is moralism, we completely miss the larger systemic implications of actions that purport to help but actually do not. Sadly, many of us make surface-level determinations of western altruism without actually engaging any scholarship, reports, history books, articles, essays, tweets (yes, even tweets are a valid part of discourse), which exist in great abundance, and very clearly paint a more complicated picture than one of often undercomplicated goodness. It matters for us, as locals, to ask ourselves why we are so committed to citing their goodness to absolve white people in particular of critique. The person in the Twitter exchange I mentioned above was, in fact, backed by a number of Malawians. It was over the wind of this affirmation that he grew stubborn in his stance and maintained that he is doing “good,” going so far as to claim that what we were offering him were “shit critiques.” It’s the sheer arrogance for me. It seems that “goodness” and “good intentions” are enough to absolve any individual from critique, and are a worthy enough end that the means and modes of its doing do not need to be called into question. The “goodness” of western volunteers does not exist in a vacuum. That “goodness” is a product of their access, that access is granted to them by their belonging to nation state(s) that are inequitably endowed through imperialist violence and exploitation. Reductionist, unteachable altruism: Many do-gooders, as demonstrated by the insults and name-calling this particular one resorted to, want our unquestioning gratitude, but not our critique. They want us to smile and sing and say “thank you for your selflessness,” but they do not want to hear us say “hey, we know you mean well, but your presence here isn’t leading to any real systemic change.” They want us to sit tight and receive their help without calling it into question. But when we situate their “goodness” in history, and consider its systemic efficacy (or lack thereof), we realize that race, class, geopolitical disparity and neocolonialism all factor greatly into volunteerism. I have faint memories of my grandmother telling us stories about being a black African woman in colonial times. “But they weren’t all bad,” she would add, after recounting some heinous injustice she faced, “Some of the white people were good. They greeted us and were kind to their servants.” (Low bar). Some of the white people were good. I think of this whenever I see black Malawians (or black Africans at large) coming to the defense of western volunteers. I cannot shake the fact that some of this endorsement is rooted in the fact that historically, the norm for whiteness in our country is violence at worst or apathy at best. My grandmother’s generation expected whiteness to either stick its nose up in the air and pay us no mind or to enact violence on us. They expected to live in different neighborhoods from white people, to shop at different shops, and to eat in different spaces. Some of this has carried forward, but I think we are newly emerging out of an era that had a different set of expectations of whiteness. One in which, when a nice mzungu rolled up their sleeves and threw on a lopsided chitenje to sit with us and eat with us, we were outraged when someone was brazen enough to call them a colonizer. This is what it means to be colonized. We cling so steadfastly onto white benevolence and protect it with every bone in our bodies because it legitimizes us. A white person’s ‘friendship’ and attention feels good, makes us feel more worthy. That is the legacy of colonialism. This is Anglophilia. It carries on today. We underscrutinize whiteness and we overcongratulate it. So what? What, then, do we do with all of this? Beyond tweeting, and liking, and sharing hot takes on the TL. What is the point of critiquing white westerners who come into our country as volunteers? The point is that we need to be committed to change that is meaningful and lasting. The cycle of people coming in with good hearts to do good things continues with no lasting transformation of the systems at play both on a local and international scale that keep us in the chokehold of poverty. But poverty is not merely the lack of money or resources- poverty is by design. Poverty is deeply systemic. It is the product of a world that values some lives over others and perpetuates the unequal distribution of wealth. Young, un/underqualified people are able to hop on a plane and fly to Malawi “to volunteer” because their countries have so much power that they have amassed through asserting dominance over countries like ours. These volunteering trips become about white and western benevolence, and completely disregard and undercompensate local expertise. We, as locals, also need to examine ourselves. In what ways do we encourage surface-level work that does not yield lasting change? In what ways are we just accomodating to azungu because eh basi azungutu ndichoncho, at least they are helping, without holding them to account or having difficult conversations about their presence? I’m not saying we should throw rocks at them (although we frankly would be justified in doing so). I’m saying we should consider what we want for ourselves, and for our dignity. Do we want to continue on the receiving end of ineffective benevolence, or do we actually want to address the deeply rooted systemic issues that leave us needing it in the first place? You might be wondering what I mean when I keep saying “systemic issues.” I mean the things that were established a very long time ago as part of colonial rule, which did not depart with the settlers. I mean the internalized inferiority. I mean the impact of structural adjustment programs, which screwed us over and landed us in debt and dependency. Outside of volunteerism, I mean things like our domestic workers, how folks who hire them to shrink and treat them like gods, to have service to them as their modus operandi. I mean how we privilege English, and praise the ability to speak it and speak it well. How we punish speaking venacular in most of our schools. I mean how we have normalized how expensive and inaccessible many resorts are to black Malawians. This is what decolonization means. These are the things that many of us have not even began to think of. There is a lot of work to be done, and rethinking our attitudes toward ephemeral benevolence is one of the many steps we need to take to undo the damage of colonialism. There is a lot of humility that western volunteers need to have, and an attentiveness they should adopt towards critique. There is a lot of important, good work that is done, and that needs to be done, but following the same old tropes of the benevolent westerner who is so kind as to stoop down to our African locales is tired, unsustainable, and undignifying. Read more of my writing at www.Takondwa.com

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