Voluntourism Is Colonialism Wrapped In The White Savior Complex

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Through voluntourism, the white savior complex repackages and presents notions of the primitive African that white people use to further colonialism.

Trigger warning: sexual assault against and surgical procedures on Black children.

By Naila Aroni

So there I was browsing Tinder when I came across something awful and disturbing. I’d like to immediately establish that I don’t take dating apps seriously. I’ve previously joked to close friends that Tinder is akin to an app like candy crush which I’ll whip out to instantly ease boredom. I’ve consumed a fair share of blanditude and misogynoir interacting with men off the app so I don’t expect them to stray away from their regular programming online. Once it’s open, I humour myself by trying to guess what I’ll be privy to on this occasion. This time, it was a white man who slid in a photo of him volunteering in an orphanage in Africa (not the continent with distinct countries, the monolith). His cartoon-like grin captured how proud the was of the photo that resulted from this opportunity. With arms wide open, he was generously hugging as many Black kids that could fit in his embrace. Appalled, I noted how frequently this happened to me since relocating to Nairobi, to the degree where it has repelled me from the app entirely. In the mind of the average dude-bro, the puppy pics and gym selfies that must excite white women, won’t make us melanated ebony queens swoon as much as voluntourism and neo-colonialist expressions of white supremacy will.

I should be able to report photos like this and carry on with my swiping. But how does one articulate and subsequently report this when there is nothing in Tinder guidelines to support this claim or prohibit the behavior. Western media, rooted in liberal iterations of insidious racism, encourages white people to use impoverished Black kids as photo backdrops and deems it entirely appropriate. And therein lies the crux of this epidemic.

Anthropology professor Andrea Freidus defines volunteer tourism as “an emerging trend of travel linked to ‘doing good’”. The criticisms levied around this fad has resulted in the clever portmanteau we now refer to as voluntourism. Its branches have since evolved to encompass not just why people from the West travel to “enlighten” those on the dark continent, but how they engage with Africans on these dangerous quests. I recall Madonna’s visits to one of Nairobi’s slums Kibera in late 2016 where her findings left her perplexed. In an attempt to raise awareness about these feudal living conditions, she falsified that sanitation is entirely non-existent as people in Kibera drink sewage water from trenches. Her sensationalised Instagram caption read, “imagine this is where your water comes from! @shofco is working to change this in… Africa’s largest slum.” 

A more recent example of voluntourism involves Twitter sensation Brother Nature’s visit to a Maasai Mara in November 2018. His trip was sponsored by apparel brand Karmagawa which disassociates itself from other voluntary schemes because it uses its “products, social media and… the website to spread the message of great charities and give them much needed exposure.” Brother Nature was so inspired by the children in the village, he let them star and dance in a triller video captioned “Love my new friends!” What remains grossly etched in my mind is how tattered and old their clothes are. One of the boys quite literally has a glaring hole in his t-shirt. You’d think that since a clothing brand sponsored his trip, and he donned some of the attire from the brand in this video, he would consider sharing some with these kids so everyone could look fresh for the gram. But no. Props must remain authentic at all times, even though logic begs otherwise. 

 “There is no Roman priest and a European [trader]- both are the same!” – Old Kikuyu proverb (Mbiti 1969, 231).

Although charitable organisation’s package these trips as “cultural exchanges” rather than forceful impositions, aid-work by nature and character is yet another technology of colonial violence. The white saviour industrial complex repackages and presents notions of the primitive African that Christian missionaries to “civilise” us. Citizens of Kibera don’t want or need intruders. When asked about their thoughts on foreign volunteers, their frustrations ring loud and clear: “Kibera is not a national park and we are not wildlife. Trespassers like this Danish woman boast that she has visited Kibera on more than 30 occasions and ‘brings friends to see how people live here.’” And “The people might not have money like us, but they are happy and that’s why I keep on coming.” To the residents, living in an area where unemployment is high and living conditions are dire is not a choice. However, to these white foreigners, Kibera is a dystopian virtual reality that they opt-in and out of with ease. Once the simulation ceases, the white saviour thirsts for the next humbling experience.

Unsurprisingly, these fantasies and fictions about Africa have fostered a climate of impunity that has created the conditions for the white supremacy to thrive. I and numerous other continental Africans grew up plagued with headlines of church volunteers and peace corps abusing young orphans with unshakeable authority. In an attempt to bring these atrocities to light, it is difficult to pick just one. The face of white terrorism is Matthew Lane Durham, a 24-year-old missionary from Oklahoma charged with traveling to engage in illicit sexual conduct after visiting Kenya on three different occasions. He recorded his confessions of sexually assaulting at least ten children between the ages of 4-15 in writing and on video. His defence attorney claimed duress, blaming his deviant behaviour Kenyan cultural practices, claiming “it’s like some cult over there.” In his words, the innocent all-American teenager was under the influence of “pseudo-tribal-psychological-vodoo.” 


White supremacy is serial rapist Hans Vriens Egon Dieter. Hans was convicted in the Netherlands in 1995 and sentenced to three years for sexually abusing 182 minors. After serving his sentence, he freely travelled and relocated to Kenya and conducted the guise of an orphanage where he abused and filmed dozens of young girls. White supremacy is Simon Harris, a former head of charity who was convicted of eight counts of indecent and sexual assault. White supremacy is Renee Bach. A missionary with no medical training moved to Uganda at age 18 and replicated surgical procedures she’d learned from youtube on malnourished babies. An unknown number of children died in her care, although estimates speculate that they are at least 105. Renee still roams free. 

Would you rather we didn’t volunteer and left these starving African kids with no food and water at all?” – White proverb.

Right on cue, the performative nature of white allyship immediately surfaces when any legitimate criticism to challenge voluntourism is challenged by abandonment altogether. We aren’t saying that donating to charity should be discouraged. Successful organisations run by locals like No White Saviours exemplify that you shouldn’t be the ones steering the wheel. According to NWS, “The problem arises when you receive praise for simply being…in close proximity to Black bodies.” NWS encourages well-wishers abroad to identify local organisations and support their specific needs. This way, you are entrusting development work to experts who are not only formally trained but who are culturally sensitive. So far, NWS are successfully crowdfunding private investigations to ensure perpetrators like Renee are held accountable for their crimes.

Remember, not all heroes wear capes, or take photos with Black kids while they’re at it. And most importantly, the hero in this story certainly isn’t white. If these truths struck a nerve, I suggest you embrace the discomfort. 

Naila Aroni (she/her) is an Artist and chapati enthusiast born and based in Nairobi, Kenya. As a recent law graduate from the University of Warwick, she is currently on a gap year, exploring ‘funemployment’ to the fullest capacity. For now, she has no one-year plans or five-year plans. Just everyday plans of the using-her-art-to-celebrate-Blackness kind. Find her @Aronizzzle on twitter and @aronistudio on Instagram.