The Issue With ‘Voluntourism’ In Africa


As with any other day, I began my Monday this week perusing through Instagram and relishing in my daily dose of memes and cat videos. Halfway through my feed of makeup tutorials and sphynx cats, however, I came across a rather disturbing picture taken by an Instagram user named Jossa Johansson.

The photo- as harmless as it looked showcasing Johansson embracing a young Kenyan child- wasn’t quite the issue. It was the caption, however, that left me deeply concerned and with a foul taste in my mouth.

Dear child”, Johansson begins. “You inspire me. You inspire me to be the best person to everyone around me, even my enemies. Because I would never even want this for my worst enemie.

Aside from the obvious grammatical issues and the glaring undertone of white saviorism in Johansson’s continuous reiteration that this unnamed child ‘inspires’ her, the caption at this point was… OK, I guess.

But it gets worse.

Johansson then goes on to write, “When I asked you what your biggest dream was, you said ‘to dance’…One of the happiest moments in your life was when you met me and my friends, and you asked me when I’m coming back.

As if Johansson hadn’t already patronized her enough, in a bizarre twist of events, Johansson begins to viciously attack the child and project a long list of outdated stereotypes onto this child’s future.

In two years,” she writes, “you are going to meet a grown up man that you have never met before, you two are going to have a child, and then if you are lucky he’s gonna stay with you, but he will probably leave you alone with your child in your small home made of mud and trees. You will probably sell your body to someone else to earn money for your child.

Alas, Johansson finishes off her post by saying, “I just want you to know that there is hope, there is. Dreaming could be your saviour. Dreaming could keep you alive.” Judging by the demeaning nature of her post, it is safe to assume that Johansson probably does not know the name of this child. She finally concludes her caption with, “Dear child, keep safe.

It wasn’t long before Johansson’s post when viral, leading members of the African diaspora community to not only condemn her choice of words, but the issue of ‘voluntourism’ in Africa as well.

Voluntourism- the trend of westerners (usually young, college students in their early 20s) traveling to ‘developing’ countries to participate in volunteer work such as building schools, orphanages, and other facilities- has come under fire in recent years, and rightfully so.

Often times, these volunteers are not adequately screened to ensure that they are qualified for such work, and it’s as if the only requirement needed to volunteer overseas is that you come from a western nation. The notion that any one person can just travel to another country and partake in intensive development projects despite not having the necessary skill and expertise needed to carry it out, is outdated and trite.

There’s also the risk of the classic White Savior Complex that commonly arises in students who partake in voluntourism projects. In an article dismantling the problematicity of this notion, Cynthia Okoroafor hits the nail with her definition of white saviorism, stating, “The ‘white saviour complex’ revolves around two notions which make it difficult for Africa and Africans to break out of a stereotype that hinders development and advancement; that Africa is always theirs to ‘fix’ and that the poor socioeconomic state of the continent means that ANY White individual can do the job, regardless of their own socioeconomic background.”

And this is exactly why Johansson’s caption- which reeks HEAVY of white saviorism- is the reason why so many members of the African diaspora are frustrated with volunteer expeditions in Africa. And despite the fact that Johansson might have traveled to Kenya with ‘good’ intentions, what matters is not the intent, but the impact that her actions have had on the community, and the role she has taken part of in further perpetuating negative stereotypes and portrayals of Africa.

Johansson has since deleted all of her photos on Instagram, leaving behind just the picture of her embracing the young Kenyan girl. She has since revised her caption numerous times to show the world that she is definitely NOT a racist.

However, it is apparent that Johansson continues to miss the point of exactly why her actions are problematic. In one of her many revisions, she affirms, “If I had been racist I would never have gone to Kenya and helped so many people”.

*Face Palm*


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