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Demolishing the White Savior Complex as a Student of Color

April 03, 2019 | Global Health Fellows Program II | Originally published by Global Health Fellows Program II

WHAT DOES “MZUNGU” MEAN?

Walking the roads of Blantyre, Malawi, Howard University GlobeMed members were greeted by a chorus of children shouting, “Mzungu, Mzungu!”

“Oh, they must be saying ‘good morning,’” they thought.

One can imagine their shock when they learned “Mzungu” is a term commonly used to refer to white Westerners.

During GlobeMed Week at Howard University, a panel of past and future GROW (Grassroots On-site Work) participants reflected on their internship in Malawi last summer, their hopes for this summer's cohort of interns - and what it means to be a student of color working abroad.

Students also discussed their goals for their assignment at Nancholi Youth Organization (NAYO), GlobeMed at Howard's grassroots partner since 2017. The chapter sent its first set of GROW interns to Malawi that same year, who partnered with NAYO to design comprehensive health, education and life skills services for teens living with HIV.

The 2018 GROW interns are excitedly preparing to build on the legacy of the inaugural cohort.

But the work leading up to Malawi also involves having difficult conversations.

Chapter president Ngozie introduces GROWers, from left to right: Nia, Nancy, Surya, Emanuel and Amma. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

Chapter president Ngozie introduces GROWers, from left to right: Nia, Nancy, Surya, Emanuel and Amma. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

GlobeMed at Howard Founder Cameron Clarke, left, helped establish the chapter's partnership with NAYO. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

GlobeMed at Howard Founder Cameron Clarke, left, helped establish the chapter's partnership with NAYO. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

GROW-ING AS AFRICANS, AS AMERICANS

The white savior complex is a well-worn term in global health and development circles. Teju Cole, photography critic of the New York Times Magazine, defined it like this: “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

GlobeMed’s work to dismantle the white savior complex starts with its curriculum, which emphasizes that the communities and GROW partners know best. Diversity is another essential component. GlobeMed has increased the diversity of GROW interns by 219 percent over the course of its six-year partnership with the Global Health Fellows Program (GHFP) II. This is transformative for organizations like NAYO, who are finally seeing volunteers who look like them.

"We were the first black volunteers NAYO had,” said Surya Lombela, a 2017 GROW intern. 

Being able to apply your global health education on the ground is a life-changing experience in and of itself.

But it took on a greater meaning for the GROW 2017 interns, who felt they were able to represent “a different type of American, and university student, from the ones commonly depicted in mass media,” Surya remarked.

Similarly, this year’s GROW interns’ roots extend to Ghana, the Congo, Haiti and Prince George’s County. Even as students of color, they recognize they’re not immune to the white savior complex.

“Some of us have been to Africa. Some of us ARE African. But even so, you have to be cautious about the white savior complex. You’re entering other people’s space and their lives,” said 2018 GROW intern Amma Boetang, a senior biology major from New Jersey (by way of Ghana). 

Surya recalled an incident from last summer, in which another group of volunteers was hosting a computer class and kept stopping to take pictures of the participants. She respectfully reminded the group, “you’re here to help.”

Amma added, “As an African woman, there’s a certain pressure for you to ‘know’ the culture. I can’t be seen scooping up kids and taking pictures. That would make me look disconnected.”

WORDS OF WISDOM - ASK, “WHAT DO YOU NEED?”

Nia Sweatt, also a 2017 GROW intern, told the incoming intern class that a major lesson learned was to “push your client to tell us what they need.” 

That principle extends beyond the scope of work. GlobeMed students do a great deal of fundraising to finance their own internships, and secure items for their partner organization. This year's GROW Coordinator, junior biology major Emanuel Demissie, is spearheading a fundraising campaign to provide NAYO with items including feminine hygiene products, HIV testing kits and sports equipment. He and fellow GlobeMedders were surprised that few people actually ask their partner that simple question – “what do you need?”

Last summer, Nia met a group of Canadian volunteers who had been working with another organization nearby. Some of them had been donating items to the organization for 20 years. Last year, they finally had the chance to visit the organization – only to see the materials they’d been sending sat untouched in a warehouse.

“You can give them resources. But if they don’t use them, what’s the point?"

NAYO's clinical staff administers HIV tests.

NAYO's clinical staff administers HIV tests.

Members of the 2017 GROW team with NAYO clients.

Members of the 2017 GROW team with NAYO clients.

A HUMBLING HIKE

Nia said one of the most rewarding parts of her GROW internship was organizing a trip to Mount Mulanje, the highest peak in Malawi. It’s about a one and a half hour drive from Blantyre, but their partners at NAYO had never been.

Howard students organized a day trip, coordinating everything from transportation to meals for dozens of people. 

The total cost? Four U.S. dollars.

“To us, that’s the cost of an Uber. They expressed such gratitude – ‘nobody has taken us to this mountain,’” said Nia.

“With all the differences, you recognize all you have in common in the shared excitement of those little moments.” 

Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

WHAT 2018 GROWERS ARE MOST EXCITED ABOUT

Nancy Alexis, a sophomore from Florida, is the chapter's gHU Coordinator for the 2017-2018 academic year. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

Nancy Alexis, a sophomore from Florida, is the chapter's gHU Coordinator for the 2017-2018 academic year. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

Emanuel Demissie, the 2018 GROW coordinator, is a junior biology major from Maryland. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

Emanuel Demissie, the 2018 GROW coordinator, is a junior biology major from Maryland. Credit: GlobeMed at Howard.

Amma Boateng, a senior biology major/political science & chemistry minor, is excited to "join a community of self-determined Malawians."

Amma Boateng, a senior biology major/political science and chemistry minor, is excited to "join a community of self-determined Malawians."

Amma is most looking forward to designing mental health services for HIV positive youth. Many of them have to choose between school and treatment - and that hard choice is considered a luxury. Because of the cost of treatment and the fear of being shunned by their community, neither is an option.

“Young people are missing out on opportunities. I imagine that the challenges I see there, I can easily connect to what I see in Northern New Jersey,” said Amma.

Nancy, a sophomore nursing major and first-time GROW intern, is looking forward to incorporating the arts into health services. She already created a chant about being above stigma, and she’s partnering with NAYO to launch a step class.

“I especially want to empower the young women to be vocal, and ensure they get something out of this,” she said.

Emanuel is excited to finally meet George, NAYO's project coordinator, after months of emails and late night Skype meetings.

“I love being GROW coordinator and wouldn’t trade it for anything. At the same time, I’m grappling with those self-imposed pressures. I don’t want to go in with expectations of how things will go,” said Emanuel.

Surya nodded. “A major takeaway from last year is that NAYO is real. There are 10, 15 of them on a fast day, serving hundreds of people.”

For GlobeMedders and NAYO leaders, this represents an opportunity to come together in the realization there’s no “them” – only “us.” There will be setbacks and failure bows, but shared successes and lives made better.

“Shoot your shot. That’s our motto,” said Amma. 

 


Footnotes: Image Credits: GlobeMed at Howard University