Once, I took a bunch of refugee kids to a VBS (Vacation Bible School, for those not in-the-know). This was the second summer most of the Somali Bantu kids had been in America, and they were languishing in the heat and lack of supervision that summer brings.
My dad was a pastor at a large, successful Megachurch in the suburbs of Portland. Hundreds of kids crammed into a beautiful auditorium filled with good-natured volunteers running around trying to stop children from killing each other. The theme of the week was “Serengeti”, and the whole place was decked out with African-themed decorations. (What this had to do with Jesus, or the Bible, I still don’t know to this day.) I had brought a van full of kids from the apartment complex, and they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage. They clapped their hands and screamed along to the songs, they listened patiently to the Bible story, they made their crafts and ate their snacks with gusto. I was so proud, so self-congratulatory for being a good missionary and bringing these kids to the church. And then, as I was herding the refugee kids towards the water fountains, I overhead a small child talking to a volunteer. “Oh! “ he said joyously “they brought us kids from the Serengeti!” Several children turned and pointed at me and my group, and I felt my face began to flush as I realized the church kids thought the refugee kids were props.
Of course, I myself have been guilty of turning the poor into props all the time, be they refugees, the homeless, or my single-mom neighbors. I used the refugees to get this column, actually, a thought which has troubled me for some time now.
The Christian community is abuzz right now about Kony 2012, a mini-documentary on Joseph Kony and the LRA that has gone viral in a most spectacular way. The video, plus the subsequent public breakdown of one of the makers of Kony 2012, has led to heated and convoluted discussions about non-profit accountability, the way we in the West talk about poverty, and savior complexes in general. It has been interesting to hear people weigh in on the issues from all sides of the spectrum, and I am glad it is getting a national dialogue. But throughout the controversy and attention, the real victims of Joseph Kony—the children who have been conscripted as child soldiers, the families torn apart—have been treated as mere props. Almost all of the discussion has centered on the filmmakers and non-profit directors (young white males with a penchant for hipster trappings). Most (not all) of the critiques have come from similarly well-to do westerners, and center on problems with the goals and means (raising awareness vs. on-the-ground aid) of the non-profit organization.
The thing is, Joseph Kony used those children as props in his terrible game. And now we are doing the same thing, but for pettier reasons. Reasons I am unclear about, actually.
My sister has spent many years in Africa: Sudan, Uganda, the Congo. She has worked with child soldiers, taught them English and songs about Jesus and hippos and played silly games with them. She has opened up her house for them to come, night after night, to drink chai and to not be alone. She has told me some of their stories, but not all. They are not props to her: they are precious boys and girls to be protected at all costs, including their stories. What she will tell me is this: Kony is already famous in those parts of Africa. There is no need for an awareness campaign. The fear is still thick, the madman still in the jungle.
So excuse me if I don’t care what you think about hipsters using social media to raise awareness of Joseph Kony. I care about what you are doing, right this very second, about the fact that this kind of evil goes on, all over the world. We are all, to some degree, as Nicholas Kristof declares “arm-chair cynics,” allowed the luxury to have these sorts of arguments via Twitter and Facebook.
Is there a danger in developing a white savior complex? Of course. But for me, it is far better than not having a complex at all. I myself have received criticism of this very nature in regards to how I interact with the Somali Bantu refugees. To those critics I say: well, no kidding. There would be nothing to write about if I didn’t have a savior complex.
I said at the start I was the very worst missionary. For my Somali friends, there was never any doubt about the fact I was a Christian and eager to talk about Jesus, or that I wanted to be helpful to them. They have used me, and in many ways I have used them and their stories to make myself look good, to feel like a good Christian. This column was originally intended to be a series of stories of the crazy adventures we have had together. But I have realized that too often I interpret these stories through my eyes only: you would only get the westernized, sensationalist version. They would only be the crazy characters in the story of me (the articulate, intense, culturally savvy, humble missionary).
The story I originally wanted to tell was one where I did save everybody: socially, economically, and spiritually. It would be wonderful if I could package together something as compelling as the Kony 2012 video. I truly wish it weren’t as complicated as it really is.
Just this past week, I had two Somali girls over for a sleepover. I have known them since they first came to America almost 8 years ago. As I was driving them around, Manoi, age 14, told me she has a boyfriend now. She then told me she is planning on getting married in 2014. She is currently in the 8th grade. The activist, missionary part of me almost took over, right then and there. I can feel this aspect of my personality kick into high gear at a moment’s notice: I am the kind of person who talks loudly about the misogyny of Eminem and Chris Brown to eye-rolling teenagers. I write manifestos against “Princess Propaganda” and vow to never let my daughter watch The Little Mermaid. Around the refugee girls, I am always, always talking about college.
But surprisingly, as she jabbered to me in the front seat of my car I decided to simply listen. I asked a couple of questions, but for the most part Manoi rambled on and on about how cute and nice this (much older) boy was. I looked back at her little sister Abey, age 13, who was in the backseat and busy aggravating my toddler.
“Abey”, I said. “Do you want to get married too? Or do you want to go to college?” I could see her in the rearview mirror all sprawled across the backseat, tickling the baby’s toes.
“Ummmmmm,” she drew out her answer dramatically. “Yeah, I guess I want to go to college.” She wasn’t very convincing. I decided right then and there to stop pretending, to stop play-acting as though I were the good volunteer and they were the impressionable and moldable young girls in this story. I decided to play it straight.
“Abey,” I said, “Do you know any Somali Bantu girls that have ever gone to college?” I could hear her pause, stop fidgeting for one second. And then she laughed.
“No, I don’t know anybody.”
I somewhat grimly went on: “Do you really think you are going to go to college?” She answered quickly, decisively.
“No, I don’t think so. That is just something we tell you.”
I sighed, shook my head, and turned up the terrible Christian rap I play as a compromise that none of us like. And later, I replayed the conversation over and over in my head. I wondered why I wasn’t more upset, more up in arms about what I saw as an issue of social justice. The Somali girls were getting married at younger and younger ages, entering a patriarchal and polygamous system where they will be expected to have lots of babies and cook three times a day. From the first day I met them I had made it a goal of mine to see these girls through to college. Now, it looked like I might have to put those dreams away to die. But the biggest emotion I felt was relief: for the first time it felt like we were finally being honest with each other.
Once, I thought I was going to save everybody. Through Jesus’ love and homework help, art projects and good literature, church activities and the sheer force of my good will. This way of framing life points to the dangerous thinking of the savior complex: I am the sun, and everybody else is just a moon. But of course, I don’t shine so brightly in anyone else’s eyes, and I am learning this slowly.
The tendency to make these girls props is still strong: part of me wants to petition child protection services or write a journalistic expose of polygamy or do a self-esteem workshop. But the reality is that the best way to humanize an issue is to actually be involved in it. If the girls remained mere props in my story, I would bluster and bully until they slipped away, retreating to be with people who thought just like them. I would be able to indulge in the luxury of outrage and wallow in the affront to my altruistic goals. I would probably give up, washing my hands of a complicated situation, consoling myself with the thought that I really had tried my hardest.
But when I become the bit part, the background player in a much larger saga, I find my true role. Which is this: to swallow my own impulse to save and to focus on the long game. To be a friend, the truest form of advocacy there is. To listen to them talk about their boyfriends or how much they love Chris Brown or plan their weddings. This is the new reality, and I have to work with what I’ve got.
And this is how I find myself offering to bake the damn wedding cake.