How Not To Be A Savior

I recently came across the website of a North American NGO working toward access to clean water in the Majority World. Something about this organization’s website really struck me. Apparently, they were holding some sort of contest to win a trip.  Here is what it said:

2014 CONTEST FOR A TRIP TO AFRICA

Have you longed to travel to Africa?

Would you like to change people’s lives forever?

How about saving lives?

A six-night all-expenses-paid trip to Africa and a rainwater-harvesting tank with YOUR name on it!

Yes, people in many areas of the African continent, particularly south of the Sahara, do not have clean water. There are some stellar organizations that are doing incredible work to change this, work they have learnt to do well because they understand the particular contexts in which they are working and they partner directly with local leaders. I am not very familiar with the in’s and out’s of how the organization running this contest approaches in clean water projects. But their marketing strategy reveals a lot about the story we tell ourselves about Africa and Africans:  it’s a place of miserable poverty that needs saving. And that we can save it, all the while getting credit for it with our name put on the side of the water tank that we raised money for.This marketing material is playing directly on our deepest needs to be desired, to have meaning and purpose in our lives, even to love and be loved.

The message this organization is giving is “Hey, this is your opportunity to be the savior of Africa.” (The use of the word “Africa” to describe a place or a people is like using the word music to describe the Mozart’s 5th, it simply is lacking—but that is a whole other issue for another post). Maybe then we can finally feel good about ourselves. Maybe then we can finally feel safe, have a sense of meaning and purpose in our empty lives. Maybe then we will matter. Maybe then we will feel good about ourselves.

And it’s all a façade. A water tank with our name on it cannot fill our deepest needs.

We can’t save lives here in North America. We can’t be a white savior in our own white culture. The nagging sense of purposelessness that haunts us is given the analgesic of the opportunity to rescue, to save, and thus to matter. It makes us feel better about who we are. This advertisement is doing what any other form of good advertising is doing: touching a deep human need and promising fulfillment of that need through the product being offered. Except in this case, it isn’t that drinking a certain type of beer will make a man desirable to a beautiful women or the new car that will bring a sense of adventure and freedom from the daily grind.

The words here are far more dangerous. They promise that we can attain a sense of self-worth through becoming a savior of Africa.

What do you think about our unconscious attempt to gain self-worth by rescuing others? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you.

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