Shouldn't charity begin at home?Norwood and Brixton Foodbank

This, in part, is a response to the “Ten Weeks in Kampala” series that Varsity has been publishing. I am writing about this because I think this series has been riddled with misrepresentations, stereotypes and violently perpetuates the White Gaze.

There are many things to be said about exploring the world. It’s natural for us to want to go out and have new experiences, to push ourselves by seeking out thrills and adventures, things that will test us. What irks me is that there are white middle class people who have the money, time and space to “discover” my homeland in ways that are not even afforded to me, someone from Africa. Acknowledgement is always the first step in breaking down practices and systems that contribute to the oppression and dehumanisation of other people, but it is not enough simply to recognise the privilege of being able to fly to Africa and volunteer, or being white in Africa.

There is nothing new, radical or interesting about going to a continent that your ancestors pillaged and destroyed, all the while enslaving its inhabitants, and then writing about how you feel like an outsider for the first time. Colonised countries are not an emotional playground for the privileged. They are not there to teach you anything about yourself or to reveal how race operates or to remind you that you are lucky.

You don’t get to use colonised countries and people as a means of self-discovery. You don’t get to up and decide that you’re going to move to Kampala because those people are in need of your services. Not only does that show a complete and utter disregard for colonial history, using other human beings to enrich your life and experiences is also violently voyeuristic. It is selfish and dangerous to explore the world, especially as a white person, with the intention of “doing good” without first examining the reasons why you think that is necessary.

No doubt, the media has painted an image of Africa so unlike her reality that you might feel compelled to go and help. Yes, poverty exists in Africa, like it exists in the UK. But, to steal the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Africa is not a single story; she is multifaceted, and so are her people. Consider that when you go to Africa – a continent so heavily theorised by white media and white academics – and then write about how you are scammed, touched, hollered at, you contribute to a global understanding of Africans as scary and savage. Consider that when you marvel at the use of witchcraft and native rituals, you reaffirm a perception of Africa as backward. Consider that, by centering yourself in discussions about an Africa that is suffering for the large part because of the continent you represent, you add nothing of value to broader discourse. There is nothing radical about writing about your social and political experiences if you belong to a dominant group. History is full of your experiences. Consider that going to Africa – or, indeed, any of the former colonies – as a middle class white person might do more harm that good. 

We must start looking past dominant narratives that tell us that Africa is in need of our help. It shows an astounding level of entitlement to think that you, on your gap year or your three weeks abroad “exploring”, are going to do anything meaningful or long lasting to help the communities that you fetishise. If your aim truly is to help someone, why is volunteering at your local food bank not enough? Why is flying half way around the world and infiltrating a culture that you won’t fully understand a better option? Because your local food bank isn’t exotic. You can’t watch the sun rise and fall over Hackney in the same way you can over Kampala.

At the very least, there must be a recognition that what drives middle class white people to travel abroad is an inherent selfishness. That Africa exists to teach you something new about yourself or make you feel good is evidence of dehumanisation. Prefacing an article on being white in Africa with an acknowledgement of colonial history and then insisting on writing about your experience shows that you haven’t fully engaged with it, as if your “experience” of Africa, your “experience” of India in any way nullifies the violent colonial structures that you are reproducing. Africa and Africans are not an aesthetic that you can get to pull on and off; they are not your cover photos or props to counteract the guilt you might feel for being middle class. If ever the White Gaze revealed itself, it’s in this constant need to “tell others” about how beautiful colonised countries are, how humble and happy the people are despite how little they have. The contrast between the state of your lives and theirs is not a tool for your emotional exploitation. 

This is not a call to end relationship ties between Africa and Western aid. This is about what it means to see your homeland constantly used to fulfil the selfish desires of Westerners. This is about what it feels like to be in conversations with white people who tell you that, “Ugandans are like this” or “the Vietnemese are like this” after spending no more than two months there. This is about ownership of narratives that do not belong to white people. Africa is in debt to the countries that stole from her; Europe must bear the brunt of the responsibility for her underdevelopment. Acknowledging that in an article where you then go on to reaffirm stereotypes and treat colonised lands as the “great unknown” is not enough. If you had actually engaged with that idea at all or given it a second thought, you might have decided to call your trip off. You might have decided to seriously interrogate your intentions when going abroad. You might have thought that it is not “your experience” that is the most important thing.