On ‘White Saviour Barbie’ and why the conversation matters…

You may have seen the Instagram parody account ‘White Saviour Barbie’ – a  satirical account of a 20-year old service volunteer in Africa, documenting her journey to save children through self-sacrificing selfies. 

The creators of @barbiesaviour have purposefully remained anonymous while maintaining the account, not only to make fun of their own experiences as volunteers in East Africa, but also to be used as a “jumping off point” for real discussion and conversation about the actions and impact of voluntourism. 

Barbie Savior lampoons the “white savior complex,” a term used to describe white Westerners who travel abroad to swoop in and “save” impoverished people of color in developing countries. The account tackles “the attitude that Africa needs to be saved from itself, by Westerners,” which Barbie Saviour’s creators call “such a simplified way to view an entire continent” that “can be traced back to colonialism and slavery”.

While there’s nothing wrong with volunteering where aid is needed, it’s important to critique the context of every situation and acknowledge the history of other regions (colonialism, slavery, White Man’s Burden). Volunteers need to make sure their actions help communities in tangible, responsible ways — and aren’t just driven by a desire to feel good about themselves.

That’s at the heart of what the Barbie Savior account mocks. These volunteers go out of their way to post selfies with kids they don’t know:

They volunteer to do work they aren’t qualified for: 

Although the creators don’t think they were ever quite as bad as @barbiesavior, they have said in interviews that the account came out of their own realisations from their experiences and actions in their years of being ‘White Saviour’ volunteers. 

Having seen and been a part of that very same thing during my experience of ‘voluntourism’ I can definitely not claim innocence! It is easy to see why young volunteers fall into this trap. You start to buy into the illusion that what you do in your 6 to 8 weeks on a project is actully making a difference or a long-term impact. Barbie Savior pushes against that. She’s an amusing way to add to the larger conversation about volunteer culture, and how to more effectively and appropriately deal with those feelings. 

Very rarely do volunteers look at what they are doing and realise that much of their behaviour is self-serving and, in some cases, harmful to the communities in which they are working. I live and work in East Africa as a (fully qualified, experienced) teacher  within a region-wide group of British International Schools. Within the town I live, on a monthly basis, I see groups of volunteers arriving then leaving, working on various short-term projects and behaving in much the same way as the @barbiesavior satirises. 

However, on the flip-side of this is the impact on the communities – and this is where the conversation that @barbiesavior generates is crucial. Are the volunteers actually providing any benefits to the destination countries? More often than not, the answer is unquestionably no.  Rather than benefiting local communities, voluntourism can have negative impacts, as revealed in a number of studies. These range from volunteers taking local jobs to child trafficking, where young children are stolen from their families and placed into ‘orphanages’ to fuel the demand for volunteer placements. These kidnapped children are then subjected to deliberately poor living conditions to elicit higher donations from visiting westerners.  Even within more carefully selected projects, there can be negative impacts – take school and orphanage projects for example. The long-term impact on the children that short-term unqualified volunteers work with can lead to attachment issues, inconsistency in care, and lack of good education due to being taught by unqualified teachers. Children themselves start to believe in the ‘white saviours’ – leading them to believe they are only worth handouts and starting the cycle all over again for another generation. Then there are the building projects, where volunteers come out to build a school, in spite of the fact that they have never set foot on a building site before that trip. Meanwhile, construction workers and local tradesmen within the towns and villages they are working are left without work and pay when they could be doing the work. Often projects build structures that are difficult to maintain in the long-run due to no consideration for availability of resources  or consultation with the local community on the long-term plans for the structure. 

“I spoke to one girl who went to Tanzania to build a school,” says Mark Watson, the Executive Director of Tourism Concern, a charity campaigning on ethical tourism issues. “She told me the volunteers always gossiped about how lazy the locals were because they slept for most of the morning. It was only at the end of the placement that they discovered that every day, after they finished building a wall, the locals had to come and rebuild it again properly. So the whole thing was a completely pointless exercise.”

While volunteering is absolutely not always a bad thing, it is important for people to think about how they could do it in a sustainable way and for people to be held accountable for their actions. Volunteers going overseas should ask themselves the question, ‘would I be allowed to do this work in my own country?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t expect it to be any different elsewhere.  Volunteering abroad can be beneficial to all concerned if it is done right.  A carefully placed, thoroughly screened, well-prepared, skilled volunteer can – and does – have a positive impact. While @barbiesavior is a wonderfully amusing parody –  the discussion and conversation it provides is so very important.  

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful. 

— Marie Curie

“My revolution begins in the body. It isn’t waiting anymore…” – Eve Ensler 

 
Last night I had the privilege and joy of being part of the cast of The Vagina Monologues here in Arusha as part of the incredible worldwide V-Day movement.

 

Eve Ensler’s play is both funny and thought-provoking. From the hilarious moments within “The Flood”, “The Vagina Workshop”, and “Because He Liked To Look At It”, to the empowering “My Short Skirt”, “The Woman Who Liked To Look At It” and “My Revolution Begins in My Body” – it takes the audience on a journey.


Some of the most moving pieces even brought the cast backstage to tears. The stunningly heartbreaking and moving “My Vagina was my Village” left the audience in stunned, silent contemplation.

As a group performing this amazing show, I felt truly blessed by some of the special moments we shared throughout the preparation and on the night. We laughed together, cried together, cheered each other on, and embraced each other. It truly felt like a sisterhood and I count each one of them as a friend.

 
One of the most special moments of the night came through speaking to our beneficiaries, The Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM). Representatives from the organisation came to see the production and also to talk to the audience about their work.

The regions of Arusha, Dodoma, Kilimanjaro, Manyara, Mara and Manyara currently have an FGM prevalence rate of between 20 – 70%. Support for FGM by women in these areas is now below 20%, with support for the practice decreasing even more with increasing education and socio-economic status.

We got to meet the fantastic men and women who work for NAFGEM and hear about the work they do to fight against FGM in the Northern Tanzania regions.


We also met two incredible, strong young women who had undergone such practices and had escaped from their communities to the safety of NAFGEM. They are the epitome of fierce, strong, empowered young women who are fighting against the dangerous and life-altering practice that is so prevalent within their communities.

It was an honour to stand with my fellow “V-Day Ladies” next to these young women and to know that we could contribute towards making their future and the future of many other young women safer, more empowered and so much brighter.

V-Day 2016 

 
For many years I have been a supporter of the V-Day Movement and of Eve Ensler’s incredible work bringing the voices and stories of women around the world to the world stage. 

In 1998, Eve launched V-Day, a global non-profit movement that has raised over $100 million for groups working to end violence against women and girls anti-violence through benefits of  performances of The Vagina Monologues.

Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues following interviews with 200 women about their views on sex, relationships, and violence against women. The interviews began as casual conversations with her friends, who then brought up anecdotes they themselves had been told by other friends; this began a continuing chain of referrals.  She wanted their stories to be heard and for the world to sit up and take note that, even in these enlightened, modern times, the women of this world still suffer a disproportionate amount more than their male counterparts….and most often at the hands of the men. 

The Vagina Monologues is the cornerstone of the V-Day movement, whose participants stage benefit performances of the show and host other related events in their communities. Such events take place worldwide each year between February 1 and April 30. The performances generally benefit rape crisis centers and shelters for women, as well as similar resource centers for women.

This year, I am immensely proud to be performing in such an event. On Friday 12th February I will be performing in The Vagina Monologues, raising money for the Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM). On Saturday 13th February I will be performing in another Eve Ensler play, A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant And A Prayer with proceeds benefitting Arusha Women Legal Aid And Human Right Organization (AWLAHURIO). 

My own personal experiences of violence against women not only makes me want to connect with others on this topic – it makes me vehemently passionate about this cause. I believe in Eve Ensler’s approach – once you give consciousness to something, then people will talk about it. 

 
Being a part of this production is a huge personal step in my own healing and reconciliation on this topic. Some of the monologues are so heart-wrenching that even speaking them out loud feels like a healing exercise in itself. The power of the words is beautiful, heartbreaking and, ultimately, motivating and empowering. 

 
I could not be prouder to be a part of this.