Some very important points are made in this NYTimes Op-Doc, An African’s Message for America, featuring a Kenyan activist, Boniface Mwangi, discussing with high school and college students the impulse to volunteer abroad, especially in India, Africa, and the Middle East, instead of investing in local communities back home. Watching the film led me to reflect on my experience living with my parents in a boys’ orphanage in India when I was fourteen. I strongly recommend you watch the op-doc by Cassandra Herrman (only six and a half minutes.) First I will share some of the quotes I found especially important. Then my personal reflections about my time in India follow below the quotes.
Boniface Mwangi: “I can’t hold myself back when there’s injustice. I can’t.”
Duke University Student: “There is a clear sense of glorification and there’s a sense of this faux-heroism and then I’m here doing very similar work and people aren’t as excited by it.”
Boniface Mwangi: There’s a quote, it’s a Nigerian quote. ‘Until the lion has it’s own storytellers, the hunter will always be glorified.’ That’s what we need in Africa, we need the people who live in Africa to tell their own stories.”
Student: “The problem is how you frame the issue. You’re not going there to save anybody. You’re going there to save yourself….these experiences played a part in them getting a job. So they are the people who benefit, it’s not Africans.”
Boniface Mwangi: “As you try to save the world, you’re neglecting the issues at home….If you abroad you think America is all rosy and beautiful and things work. And cops do their job. And then you come here and realize that cops lock up innocent people. You come here and realize that cops discriminate against people of color. They shoot them. They arrest them.”
Boniface Mwangi: “I think that Africa doesn’t need a savior. America needs a savior.”
* * *
When I was fourteen years old I lived with my parents in a boys’ orphanage and Hindu ashram in Varanasi, India, for nine months. That was in 2006. In high school and college when I began studying critical race theory and racial justice politics, I felt a great deal of shame about this experience. That we did something wrong by going.
I can’t speak for my parents, but it is my understanding that their intention was never to go there and save the orphans or the people of Varanasi. They were seeking a spiritual experience with their spiritual teacher in the most historically spiritual place of his lineage. They knew they were going for themselves, and that was okay. They also were going for me, because as parents they knew it would be a profoundly life-changing experience for a young teenager to have, which of course it was.
I remember watching the children of the orphanage get attached to our family and other westerners who visited temporarily, only to see them leave, and I knew it was unsustainable. I wanted to be absolutely involved in the children’s daily lives for ME, because it made me feel more alive, and it gave me the feeling of a big family and of siblings that I didn’t have growing up. But that wasn’t what was best for the children. Since our visit many changes have occurred in that place, and it is now run much more by people who live in India permanently, and there are clear boundaries set for western visitors.
I wrote a book about my experiences during that year, titled The Year of a Thousand Colors (for sale locally at Booklink Booksellers in Northampton, MA, and also on Amazon.com here) and I have experienced a lot of shame about the book. Not only because I wrote it when I was fourteen and therefore I have grown a great deal as a writer since then, but also because it is clear evidence of what some might call a selfish thing that we did.
And yet, that experience led me to return to the United States, begin volunteering at a domestic violence shelter when I was sixteen, join racial justice movements, become a radical activist and community organizer….
I do think travel changes us. Being white, upper-middle-class, my eyes were opened by my experience in India. I came back home desperate to uncover where there was injustice in my local community. Of course you don’t have to go to India (or even leave your town or city, most likely) to experience this eye-opening if you are from a privileged background. But because white supremacy and segregation and gentrification and so many other things, injustice is often (intentionally) kept hidden from those growing up steeped in privilege.
I can’t change my story. And I also can’t suggest that people, especially young people, don’t travel, because the cliche is most certainly true–travel opens one’s eyes to the realities of their homelands. That said, I think the point this Op-Doc makes about intention is very important. If you are traveling to a place you believe has less than you, FIRST learn about those in your local communities that have less. Then spend a great deal of time interrogating what “less” means. Less money? Less infrastructure? Less safety from police and state violence? How do you define “having” and “wealth.” Very important to think about before going abroad. (And this self-interrogation will likely change how you see home, too). And finally, know why you are going. You are going for yourself. And if that is what you need to do in your life journey (as it was in my family’s when we went to India) then it is okay. But be authentic. And when you come home, don’t pretend injustice isn’t present here. Don’t be a savior abroad, but be careful how you are a savior here. How the “faux-glorification” spoken about in the Op-Doc exists in U.S., too, for young people from privileged backgrounds who work in “community service” or “underprivileged communities” (I use quotes here because they are heavily racially coded terms and extremely problematic).
Perhaps someday I will write a second edition of my book with a deep reflection on what it means to live abroad, and what I have learned about the experience since then. For now what I can say is that without a doubt, the people I encountered in Varanasi saved me, and led me to the path I am on today. I did not save them. Thank you Mr. Mwangi for your work and for forcing viewers to ask themselves hard questions. The hardest questions lead us to the most important work.