Aspiring actress Louise Linton recently released an extract from her memoir detailing her experiences in Zambia as a young
white saviour idealistic volunteer. In it, she reflects graciously on her trials and tribulations teaching in the rural community of the Bembe – and the valuable life lessons she learned after abandoning them to rebel Congolese soldiers, when shit got too real for her.
Can’t make this stuff up. Although the rest of the world seems to think she did.
— #EndChildMarriage (@PetraChikasa) July 4, 2016
In the subsequent public backlash that followed, the Scottish-born actress was criticised, dragged and put to task in the media – see #LintonLies for the flames. From Zambians decrying Linton’s story as complete fiction, to others questioning her credibility after discovering she’s dating Donald Trump’s chief of finance, Louise Linton became infamous overnight. The consensus seems to be that Linton is a disingenuous opportunist looking to line her pockets using retrogressive narratives of Western folk selflessly giving of their time, and safety, to “save” Africa from itself.
— Tchiyiwe T Chihana (@AfriWoman) July 4, 2016
Although Linton has since apologised for “misrepresenting Zambia” and taken her memoir off the shelves, her cringeworthy case is not new or unique. The white saviour complex has a long history. There’s even a satirical “Savior Barbie” Instagram account paying homage to the phenomenon.
Born out of a desire to explore the world while simultaneously appeasing feelings of guilt for being the benefactors of international inequality, many students from the Western world take to doing volunteer work in so-called “underdeveloped” countries – Sub-Saharan Africa is a popular destination for this. The prospective volunteers usually pay social development agencies to facilitate the logistics of the trip. It also invariably involves opportunities for privileged volunteers to travel, explore and perhaps dabble in poverty porn by taking selfies to document their enlightened cultural exposure and selfless dedication to aiding the wretched of the earth.
Given the demand for this among affluent youth, this volunteer tourism – “voluntourism” – has become an incredibly lucrative industry – worth about $173 billion annually. Much like township tourism, it has been met with great skepticism in terms of its incentives, objectives and effects. Some would even go as far as to say that the industry does more harm than good.
Part of the reason for the skepticism is that the projects run by development organisations are seen as somewhat dubious in their scope and effectiveness. The concern is that their function is merely to create the façade of sustainable development, when in fact that is not their primary objective. The NGOs, local agencies and international volunteer recruitment firms are argued to be driven primarily by a profit motive in catering to their clients’ (the voluntourists) desire for a fulfilling, but still enjoyable, time as a volunteer. To allow them the illusion of taking part in a community’s social upliftment. In fact locally, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has argued that because of the revenue generated from foreigners desiring to care for South African “AIDS orphans”, the children have begun to be treated as economic commodities.
The HSRC’s Linda Richter argued that, “In recent decades, the tourism industry has thrived, grown and diversified to encompass a wide array of travel activities, with alternative volunteer tourism leading the way. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry. AIDS orphans ‘have economic valence’ and ‘orphanhood is a globally circulated commodity’, as some researchers have phrased it.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Linton chooses to describe the young Bembe girl she comes to form a bond with, Zimba, as a young orphan with HIV.
I find it is difficult to read Linton’s account without being reminded of the words of Steve Biko. Particularly when considering the passage in the memoir where she faces great internal turmoil over the choice to leave Zambia, and the pleading Zimba, or to stay and struggle with them. In the end she chooses to leave, and thus breathes renewed life into one of Biko’s insights:
“The liberals view the oppression of blacks as a problem that has to be solved, an eyesore spoiling an otherwise beautiful view. From time to time the liberals make themselves forget about the problem or take their eyes off the eyesore. On the other hand, in oppression the blacks are experiencing a situation from which they are unable to escape at any given moment. Theirs is a struggle to get out of the situation and not merely to solve a peripheral problem as in the case of the liberals”.
Linton came to realise that she didn’t have to stay in Zambia with the community. She had the privilege of being able to choose whether it was her struggle or not – something the Bembe never had. Faced with the prospect of death, façades of “we” and “us” turned to “them” and “I”. She eventually overcame her feelings of guilt at abandoning them and realised she was in over her head. She never belonged there in the first place. “She” was not one of “them”.
Perhaps the most relevant of #LintonLies was the pretence that her relationship with the Bembe was one based on shared humanity, with equal stakes. In reality, the Bembe’s existence ended up being no more than a story in a book for Linton. Zimba’s life less than a chapter in it – commodified, once again, for the consumption of the foreign gaze.
But there’s also a lesson for us in Linton’s memoir, regarding the limitations of allyship. For what separates an “ally” from a “comrade” is whose struggle it really is – who has a choice to fight it, and who doesn’t. Because when shit hits the fan, and soldiers crack down, some might die while others can choose to escape and live another day… Perhaps even write a book about it….