"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


I rest my case.

I was really excited when I saw that The Kristof wrote a column about the good work done by Catholics in Southern Sudan. My research is about how community organizations - including churches - respond to state weakness by providing public goods. I've spent a lot of time with Catholics in Africa who work hard to provide education, health care, democracy education, and other services when governments stop doing so. They ensure that children get educated, help mothers deliver healthy babies, and maintain a sense of order and basic decency in the midst of really difficult situations. "This is great!" I thought. "Kristof's going to tell us about people like that.

Then I read the column.

I should've known better. Of the six Catholics mentioned in Kristof's Sunday column, all are Westerners. Three are American and three are Italian. All of them seem to be white. None of them are from Sudan, although one has lived there for thirty-plus years.

There's not a word in the column about local Catholics, about what they were doing before the missionaries arrived and what they will do after they are gone. Nope. In typical Kristof fashion, the column focuses only on the outsiders who have come to save the poor black Africans.

In the wake of last week's discussions about the 1 Million T-Shirts project, this week, I'm going to focus on an idea that is increasingly prevalent among many Americans. This is the view that Africa needs saving, and that Westerners are the ones to do it. I'll be thinking about where this idea came from, why many Africans react against it while others support the notion, and how we can balance the needs of those giving with those who receive.

As longtime readers of this blog know, my main issue with Kristof's reporting is that he gives an incomplete picture of what life is like in the world's poorest places. Yes, there are many outsiders who selflessly give of themselves on the African continent - and who mostly ignore Vatican shenanigans in favor of caring for those who need help.

But there are also Sudanese, and Congolese, and Kenyans, and Somalis, and people all over the African continent who make extraordinary sacrifices to care for their fellow human beings. They do not need saviors; they need support. And their stories deserve to be told.



Blogger Chris said...

I'm hesitant to support your stance on this particular article. I feel like Kristof gives you better material elsewhere, but I see what you're getting at. My one question is, do you think that articles like this say more about the readership than the author. I have to think that the Times hires a guy like Kristof because he helps disconnected, white American's relate to issues in Africa. Someone who's more connected to the actual people in Sudan would probably not be as popular.

Monday, May 03, 2010 6:21:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Chris, I see where you're coming from, but are Kristof's readers really more connected to Sudan by hearing about what outsiders do in Sudan? It's kindof insulting to his readers if he's thinking that "They'll be put off by hearing from Sudanese with funny names" or something like that.

My issue is not that the NYT has a guy who goes to exotic places to make sheltered Americans more aware of the horrors in this world. My issue is with that particular guy's savior complex, and seeming inability to see the contributions people make in their own communities.

Monday, May 03, 2010 7:55:00 AM

Anonymous Rachel said...

I'm with you, but I don't know that this idea is "increasingly prevalent." There is certainly nothing new about the view that Westerners should "save" Africa (or any other supposedly backward part of the world) or that Africans are incapable of saving themselves. We Westerners have always thought so. Why else would there be Catholicism in Sudan/Kenya/Congo in the first place? Just a small comment on another otherwise excellent post; thanks.

Monday, May 03, 2010 11:43:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

That's fair, Rachel. I guess I think of it as increasingly prevalent in the sense that many more young adults, especially students, are aware of African poverty today than when I was in college over a decade ago. Then, nobody cared.

Monday, May 03, 2010 12:42:00 PM

Anonymous K.L. Maxwell said...

As I read Kristof's column I was irritated and instantly went to your blog, knowing you would likely have a nice post on it. You did. So thanks.

The line that got me the most was the last:

"And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church."

I think we all clearly know who exactly is willing to do such a thing. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, thanks be for the Kristof.

Monday, May 03, 2010 2:02:00 PM

Anonymous Rachel said...

If any of us had more free time, I'd love to debate which is worse: nobody caring, or many people caring but believing the Kristof shall (or must) lead them? In a previous educator job I helped run programs to (mostly) Central America where we spent a lot of time talking about what we called the continuum, of pity-sympathy-empathy-solidarity. It's true, most of us are still stuck on pity, if we think about it at all. I'm still undecided about whether it's a useful starting point or more damaging than total ignorance. And that's after five years of exploring the question, which I suppose is telling.

Monday, May 03, 2010 9:34:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm new to following your blog, thanks so much for the time and effort in your posts.

A few things on this one, 1) I think one of Kristof's main points was less about the work in Sudan and more about the good things being done by Western Catholics in contrast to the bad things that we see about them in the media (e.g. child molestation). If he had focused on Sudanese Catholics, that point wouldn't necessarily have been made.

And yet, I agree with you on the savior complex issue. I've noted this recently in a lot of movies (granted, all American movies). Even a movie like "Avatar" that was set years in the future on a planet that doesn't even exist--it was the white male American solder who saved the day. I think this idea permeates American society in so many ways.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010 12:36:00 PM


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