No Longer Quiet: The White Saviour Complex, Voluntourism, & International Adoption
I was at a coffee shop recently, chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, when our conversation turned to volunteering at orphanages. I casually mentioned I was unsupportive of it, and this came as a surprise to her. "But you volunteered at an orphanage, didn't you? Isn't that where you met Joy?" she asked. It was then I realized, Oh shoot – have I not made it clear to people I don't want to promote that? I haven’t, have I?
There are some things in life –– some very important things –– that a lot of us stay quiet about. “I don’t want to rustle any feathers” or “I don’t want to offend anyone” – and I think that can potentially come from a good place. I’m not sure what the intention would be if someone wanted to rustle feathers JUST for the sake of rustling feathers. That’s one way to lose friends. However, I think the thing some people don’t realize, is that by staying quiet, sometimes you’re actually saying a lot more than you know. Apparently by not being more vocal about my views on volunteering in orphanages, and simply stating I had done it, I was unknowingly promoting it.
Let’s take racism for example. I know a lot of white people who think, “Well, OBVIOUSLY I’m not a racist. I don’t need to say anything about it”, and then stay quiet when they hear about neo-Nazi marches in the southern US. Or about another shooting of an African American by a police officer. Or when they see a subtle act of prejudice or discrimination. Or if a family member says something in "jest", and they reason “they didn’t really mean it that way.” You may think what you feel is obvious, but if you are quiet about it, how are you supposed to influence the thoughts of those around you? How are you supposed to reassure your black friends or family that you ACTIVELY oppose those things, and will not put up with them?
There have been times I’ve sat on the bus, having some guy catcall or get too close to me, and I look around thinking, SERIOUSLY, is no one going to say anything?! I’m sure people thought, “Ew, that guy is annoying” or “I’m glad he’s not talking to me,” but how much more helpful if even one person would have spoken against him?
Perhaps we’re better at speaking up when it’s something we personally relate to; when empathy isn’t a choice or far reach of the imagination, but because you know EXACTLY what it is like to have “been there”.
I think we could all afford to be a bit more imaginative with our empathy muscles.
Thinking about all this had me realize – Dang. I’ve been too quiet about my beliefs surrounding the ‘white saviour complex’, volunteering in developing countries, and International Adoption.
I recognize a good chunk of people who are following our adoption journey found out about us through some common interest. To some people, we could even be considered a face of international adoption, or volunteering at babies home’s - it is how I met Joy after all. We’ve received countless emails asking which organizations to volunteer at, or telling us we’ve inspired them to adopt one day.
So I thought it was time I stop being quiet. I hope you follow along as I express not only what MY opinion is (and I promise I’ll try my best to not do that with a sassy undertone), but what I have learnt through research and life experience as well. I am a university student majoring in African Studies and International Relations. While I am no expert (not that being an expert on all things Africa even exists), I hope all the dang readings, papers I’ve written, and courses I’ve sat in could come as some benefit to you. They have to me. I realize I have some responsibility to educate people who are following our journey on some of these controversial topics, but also to make CLEAR to those who didn’t know, what we do and do not stand for.
I’ll start off by saying how incredibly intricate and complicated this all is. There are ZERO sweeping statements I can make. Perhaps you’d prefer that, but I won’t do it. As with a lot of things in life, these topics require time to learn about them. It’s easier to categorize in your mind “International adoption is BAD” or “Volunteering overseas is GOOD” when in actuality, it requires looking at things real close. Sticking your nose in and listening. Yes, LISTENING –– that is the key. I’d say listening is one of the most underrated virtues these days.
To be clear, this is the definition of listening: “to hear something with thoughtful attention, to give consideration”; not just hearing, but perceiving. Not mentally objecting and refuting as someone is talking. Just straight up listening; with no agenda other than to understand better.
I recognize no one has time to do research on everything, so when it comes to these topics, I hope I can be of service to you. However, if you are interested in adopting internationally, if you are interested in volunteering overseas, or if you have some sort of passion focused on ‘Africa’/ the developing world, please take the time to educate yourself. You owe it to yourself and whoever you think you are helping.
The White Saviour Complex.
The first time I went to Uganda, I was 18. I had always wanted to go somewhere in Africa after I graduated high school. My biggest draw was for adventure, to learn and experience a new culture, but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge I had some subconscious notions of bringing hope, loving on kids who needed to be loved on, or wanting to realize how fortunate I was. When I write it out like that, it makes me shudder.
I don't even know if those were honest desires, or imposed ones.
I actually never intended to volunteer at a babies home. I signed up to teach art to school-aged children, however that same organization placed me in their babies home, where the “greater need” was. Reluctantly, I went ahead with the placement, viewing the opportunity as my “in” to living in Africa.
What followed were some of the hardest and most emotionally conflicting months of my life. It took no time at all to reveal that I had next to nothing to offer. I was certainly NO gift to the world, let alone to people and a culture I was a foreigner to. How could I possibly be? With all of that white suburban head knowledge in my pocket? With the faith that I had? No – most people I met had the same faith. The same God. They were the ones teaching ME the lessons. Giving ME the framework for this big gap I was missing.
I lived in Uganda for three months and made friends with local nannies at the babies home. I asked questions and I listened. I had nothing to say. The more I listened, the more my friendships grew, the smaller the divide between me and “them” became. Listening has a way of doing that. Friendship has a way of doing that. You start to realize you have more in common than you do different, and that money or where someone comes from, is no indicator of a person’s ability to feel or deserve a voice. I wasn’t bringing hope –– they had it. I wasn’t loving these babies more wonderfully than any of the local nannies –– they were doing that, and on a more consistent basis. I wasn’t realizing how fortunate I was –– I was realizing how poor-minded I had been.
What I was doing however, was learning. I was learning to un-learn.
Whether it was from a book, a story in the news, a world vision commercial, someone who spoke at church, or a notion I had conjured up all on my own, there was SO much un-learning to do.
Here is a list of some BS notions that go floating around: Africa is dark. Africa needs saving. Africa is hopeless. Africa is poor. Africa is evil. Africa is savage. Africa is a country (that one’s just funny). Africa is full of “shit hole” countries (a-hem, I wonder who said that…). Africans are always at war with each other, etc, etc… If those notions seem extreme to you, I’d invite you to take a closer look at how Africa is portrayed in the media. Here are some examples of more “subtle” BS notions floating around: Africa needs our money. Africa needs our expertise. Poor Africans. Well done to any white person who risks going to Africa to give of themselves; those people are saints.
I’m focusing mostly on the African continent here, but a lot of the same principles apply to other places as well.
As frustrated as I get by some of the troubling narratives I hear about Africa, I try my best to think that perhaps those people don’t know any better (though that excuse doesn't always apply - sometime's it's methodical). I didn’t. When we don’t understand something, we have a knack of making the unknown seem scary. We have a knack of making huge assumptions and large sweeping statements, to fit what we don’t understand into a box that we do. It certainly doesn’t make it easer when our culture (I’m writing and speaking as a Canadian) bombards us with images and stories that simply add to our existing framework. It doesn’t make it easier that our Universities only made African History/Studies a subject in the 1960’s. It doesn’t make it easier that the voices you typically hear talking about Africa, are not actually African (for the record, that obviously includes mine; for a more legit reading on how Africa is portrayed in the media, see below *1).
It also doesn’t make it easier that since the slave trade, colonization, and now post-independence, white westerners KEEP trying to create the “answers” to some of the “problems” they helped create in the first place. I could go into that a LOT more (take the Rwandan genocide for example: Savage tribes who hated each other and turned into ruthless monsters? –– Uhh, no. More like: Two societal groups that were marginalized, manipulated, and pinned against one another by Belgian and German colonizers, for the purposes of exploitation, then left to pick up the pieces), but I’ll have to suggest there’s a lot more to every story than you think. That’s why history is my favourite subject. Context is SOO important.
Let’s get back to my time volunteering at a babies home. At the beginning, I didn’t see any benefit of my being there. I was incredibly overwhelmed; there were so many needs, and the feeble tasks I completed felt monotonous. Volunteers came and went, and sometimes visiting groups would come and tour the babies home just for a day. They’d take photos, cuddle with a baby or two, swoon, cry, and then leave. Although we were there for a longer period of time, that’s essentially what us long-term volunteers were doing as well. Babies moved from room to room as they got older, and when they reached around two years of age, they graduated to a more holistic foster care program. I watched as babies and toddlers cried their eyes out from being separated from the nannies they had come to know as mum. I watched as volunteers who had grown special connections with certain infants had to leave, and that child was left dazed and confused for days later. I was that volunteer.
I can’t tell you how long I hated myself for abandoning Joy. “You didn’t abandon her” others would try and comfort me with, but to Joy, that’s exactly what I did. At three months of age, she could not reason why her birth mother had died, or why this person she had come to know as mother was leaving her as well. As she grew up in that home, she didn’t know why volunteers came and went, or why nannies got days off or could take a month of leave. It was just one person abandoning her after the other. That was Joy’s reality, and it is the current reality of millions of other babies and children around the world. (I should mention that the home I volunteered at could be considered higher standard. Unfortunately many others also deal with corruption and the neglect or abuse of children).
“But, what is the other option?! They would be on the streets or dead otherwise!” … please. Let’s be a bit more creative than that. Aside from the fact that research shows a positive correlation between the number of orphanages and the number of children abandoned (with the causation of the latter actually linked to the former), there are also other ways of doing it. Not perfect ways, but better ways. Family reunification when possible (financially and emotionally supporting a family to care for the children they previously felt unable to care for), foster care, domestic adoption, and in some cases, international adoption (see the links below to learn more *2). I’m actually not saying that institutional care is NEVER a viable option, in some cases, it is the ONLY option. Some places are not yet equipped to deal with vulnerable children/ the orphan crisis in other ways, and this is a temporary solution. However, research shows the damaging effects growing up in an institution has on children. That shouldn’t be a surprise to us. We outlawed orphanages in the western world decades ago.
What do you think happens to the heart and brain chemistry of a little person when they have people coming and leaving their lives so frequently? It’s a source of trauma. It can physically alter the development of their brain. Children NEED consistency, affection, and fulfilled expectations in order to develop their more mature functions. It’s not just about emotional or spiritual wounds, it’s an actual physical wound to their brain. Attachment disorders can develop. Developmental delays can occur (check out the link for more information from a psychologist *3). I hope my ramblings are allowing you to come to your own conclusions on how ineffective western, short-term volunteers are to a child at an “orphanage”. You may think you are helping for the time being, but in the future, you are instilling in that child that people will leave them, that they are a tourist attraction, and that white people tend to think they are better than them.
I put “orphanage” in quotations because the reality is that 80% of children living in institutions are not true orphans. They have at least one living parent, and are frequently known to other relatives. Although death and abandonment certainly contribute to the reasons children end up in institutions, more frequently it is due to poverty or lack of education. That’s a huge awakening, is it not? At the least, it’s certainly something to consider when choosing which cause to donate to. There are some incredible organizations who work to support vulnerable mothers and reunite children with their families (*4). If anything, I’d rather be part of locally-led solutions, then slap band-aids on issues I’m actually exacerbating.
A quick note to anyone who has volunteered at babies/children’s homes in the past, or has considered it for the future: I’m not judging you –seriously. I was you. I know you want the best for these children. I know you’re just trusting the organization you have partnered with. I know you want to hold and cuddle and pray over these precious kids. I’m just here to suggest that I’ve done it, and I've learnt from it. If you desire what’s best for these kids, I hope you come to realize it’s not necessarily you. (I’ll also note I can’t paint a huge brushstroke across this topic - I personally know some very long-term volunteers who’ve laid their lives down to parent children in progressive and holistic children’s homes, in no way treating them like tourist attractions).
The same principle of educating yourself before leaping in applies to any form of “voluntourism”. I’d say working with babies/children is something people should be MOST careful and intentional about, but any time somebody goes to volunteer in a developing country, they should not dive in naively.
Here are some important questions to ask yourself:
-What is my goal?
-If there is money involved, where is it going?
-Who created the initiative I am partnering with?
-Is this a grassroots organization?
-WHO am I doing this for?
-WHY am I doing this?
I can’t stress how important it is to do your research first. Listen to debates on both sides. Read some articles or history on the project/ people involved. I’m not suggesting there’s never a legitimate reason to go and volunteer in a place like Uganda or Thailand, of course there is, but make sure you do your homework and check your heart first. I’ve shared a link below with an example of volunteering/charity work gone wrong, and the important lessons Engineers Without Borders learned from it (*5).
Think of it like this: If you walk up to a homeless man on the street and say, “Here you go, a brand new jacket!” and he says, “Thanks, but I actually already have one and don’t want to carry another one around, but I could use some socks…” and you go, “No, I insist!”, and thrust it on him, who do you think you are helping? The homeless man or your ego? (That’ a real example by the way). I don’t point fault with the desire to help others –– I think we could use more of that in our world –– but with the lack of taking the time to LISTEN and LEARN before you make a problem worse.
Here’s another example: Recently I was talking with some friends about different people who have come from England to plant churches in our city. We’d heard of at least 3 separate British couples who have had the same mission. We laughed amongst ourselves, saying, “What are they teaching over there? Do they think Ottawa is really Godless?” That same knee-jerk reaction to feeling like a pity-project is universal. What is the difference between being a “missionary” in the western world, than a “missionary” in a developing country? Can you imagine how it would come across to somebody living in a slum or refugee camp, to have a westerner come offering hope, advice, or the promise of heavenly provision? They would probably think something along the lines of “Oh ya? What do you know about suffering? And by the way, I already know God.” I would like to go to a refugee camp one day, but I have zero notions I could be very helpful. I couldn’t give advice, I wouldn’t relate, but I could listen; and maybe through listening I could discover IF there was something I could do that was useful.
White person going to Africa ≠ Automatic humanitarian/ saviour
White person going to Africa = White person going to Africa
I’m sure whoever is reading already know this, but for the record, the colour or your skin, where you come from, or how much money you have, does NOT make you more capable or qualified to “help” someone. Buying a plane ticket to a country where you'll spend a few hours a week at a babies home does not automatically make you a “solution” to the “problem”. It actually just makes things worse.
If you desire to help someone, listen to them. They will help show you how to help them - if they want it at all.
Now let’s come to International Adoption.
I don’t know if I could say enough about this in one blog post. It burdens me that in an effort to keep our youtube video about our adoption as short as people’s attention spans are, that we left out some critical pieces of information. We took a long and complicated story, filled with social and political nuances, and made it more palatable.
Clearly, we don’t outrightly oppose international adoption. Adoption in general, I believe, is a beautiful way to grow a family. We have two biological children, and one child through (still-in-the-process-of) adoption. I love them all equally, and I mean that. The love between each child is unique, but it is not more or less. All over the world, including in your own town or city, there ARE children in need of adoption. It’s a reality. I know not everyone feels the desire to foster or adopt (I didn’t until I met Joy, but more on that another time), but I do think people in general should consider it as an option more often (I HIGHLY suggest taking a course to learn more. In the province of Ontario, there is a course offered called PRIDE. I learnt much more than I could have imagined *6). I think trading comfort with the unknown is something we should all do more. The need is there (I won’t go ahead and give you numbers of orphans worldwide, but you could go to your local Children’s Aid website to see if there are some figures on waiting children just in your area).
Most people with experience would say the adoption and foster care system needs to change, and I would whole-heartedly agree with them. However, it’s not a reason to abandon it all together. It costs TOO much, it takes TOO long (may as well make us the poster-children on waaaaiting), is riddled with TOO many confusing steps and messy details, but the children are TOO. WORTH. IT. not to. I was blessed enough to be lovingly raised in the home I was born into. However, there’s a huge chunk of kids who do not have that. For a variety of reasons I won’t dare try and simplify, children are often left in need of new parents or temporary caregivers. Consider if that might be you one day.
International adoption though… basically that takes an already confusing and difficult process, and makes it even more, well… confusing and difficult. Throw in another country’s laws, international conventions, and try and smoosh that in with your own provincial/state laws, and you have a hot mess.
For a variety of reasons, there are a number of countries around the world who allow their children to be adopted internationally. Did you know the US is on that list? Sometimes the reasons are political, sometimes it’s because a huge number of children are orphaned by AIDS or civil war, sometimes it’s poverty levels, but in general, it is always complicated (*7). Laws allowing International adoption are taken pretty seriously and are re-evaluated all the time. Countries who allow international adoption one year may close their borders to adoption the next.
And unfortunately, there are always people who will try and take advantage of vulnerable children. Therefore, laws get stricter, and wait times increase.
For example, even in Uganda there have been cases of human trafficking through adoption; children who have been “adopted” (more like abducted) and taken across borders for the purpose of exploitation. In the worst of horror stories, there are tales of the body parts of children being sold to witch doctors. In more “moderate” stories, illiterate parents have been tricked into signing documents that give away their rights to their child. They are fed stories of their children being taken to school, having no clue they are really being sent to sit in an orphanage until a wealthy American family pays said orphanage a huge sum to adopt that child, and take them out of the country. The American family is told the child's mother could not afford to raise them, or that they were abandoned. The adoptive family believe it, think they are doing a good thing, and find out later this child still has a mother. These are real stories. See the link at the bottom to watch a CNN report about it (*8). It's cases such as these that make it MUCH HARDER for people like us and children like Joy, as we go through the adoption process. It's a lose-lose scenario for everyone. Recent law changes in Uganda have made trafficking much more difficult to do, but you can never be too careful.
Aside from the sinister plots and lies of individuals trying to take advantage of vulnerable families, children, and systems, there is also some straight up bad thinking out there. “I am saving this child” or “this child will have a much brighter future in my country” or “there will be hope for this child, once they assimilate.” The moment you paint yourself as the saviour of your child, the further the divide you are creating between yourself and them. Your child should never feel like they’re your pity project. They should never feel they are “lucky” you adopted them, or as though they owe you something. They should feel equal and wanted. They should know YOU feel like the lucky ones. They should feel like your child.
Joy is not “lucky to have us”. We fell in love with her and from there we decided to do for her what any parent would do for their child. She’s as lucky as you were to have your parents, or your children are to have you. There will always be kids in worse-off scenarios, but saying Joy is “lucky to have us” implies she doesn’t deserve us.
Let’s get this straight: International adoption is NOT the solution to poverty. International adoption is NOT the solution to broken families or abandoned children. In some cases, it’s just a good (and last) option.
Good reasons to want to adopt internationally:
I want to grow my family through adoption. I want to travel and learn about my child’s country and culture. I look forward to incorporating their culture and history into our lives.
Bad reasons to want to adopt internationally:
As listed above, “I am saving this child”, “growing up in our country is better for them”, or “I want to do something to make me feel good.”
Your duty, if you want to adopt internationally:
-Ensure you are working with ethical and legit organizations (adoption agencies, babies homes, lawyers, everything and everyone along the chain *9).
-Hire a private investigator or social work team (with the same ethical qualifications as above) to ensure the child’s background is fully investigated (depending on which country you are adopting from, this may not be necessary. Some countries like South Korea, the government themselves are very thorough. Others, not so much).
-If there are relatives involved, have them meet with a social worker to decide whether International adoption is really the best option for this child. This one is hard, because you have to mean it. You have to know there is a chance that the child you want to adopt, that you may even feel is already yours, could end up back with their biological family (if that is deemed best for them – of course there are many cases where it is not). It’s an act of surrender, but you owe it to your child.
We did this with Joy’s relatives, and there’s not a day I'm not grateful we did.
It is also your duty to honour and value your child’s culture and heritage; whether that is in learning some of the language, making the local foods, keeping their given-name, or spending time there yourself. There should also be homeland visits planned throughout their lives. If it is a interracial adoption, make sure your child has access to mentors and friends in their lives who look like them. Whether you realize it or not yet, they WILL need this. It's part of your job as their parent to advocate for them (See! The adoption courses we’ve taken have sunk in, haha!). If you aren’t willing to offer your child this, international or interracial adoption may not be for you (*10).
I'm sure I left some stuff out, but if you made it this far at all, I'm impressed. I didn't intend to go on that long of a rant. I hope you were challenged in some way, but if none of this is news to you, stick to the news outlet you already use, haha! I think it's really important to always be learning and challenging our own beliefs about the world.
Feel free to message me for questions, more resources, or even if you would like to *kindly* debate.
Hope you're having a great week,
The photo above was taken almost 10 years ago. I can only imagine what these kids (who were living in a Kampala slum), are up to now. I can’t know for sure because this was the only time I met them. I had zero positive impact on them that day, and I’ve continued to have none since. We actually went to check out a children’s bible study, run by the local cook of the babies home we volunteered at. She was the one who spent all her extra hours with these children – not us.
Pictures don’t always speak a thousand words. In this case, the message that’s coming across could tell the wrong story all together.
*7. Orphan Crisis