By Cassandra Herrman
This short documentary profiles a Kenyan activist who asks American student volunteers:
Why do you want to help us? Help your own country.
A volunteer trip abroad has become almost a rite of passage for a certain set of Americans, particularly students. This Op-Doc video profiles a Kenyan activist who has one simple question for them: “Why?”
Nearly one million people from America volunteer abroad each year. They are mostly young, mostly affluent and overwhelmingly white. It made me wonder: when we look to do community service, why do so many — particularly the privileged among us — look to places so far from home?
I followed the Kenyan photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi as he spoke with American college students to get to the core of why it can be more appealing to “save” Africans like him than to address social inequalities on their own soil.
As Americans, we’re inundated with images of hungry African children, but what about the plight of children in this country? Our child poverty rate is at its highest level in 20 years, with nearly one in four children living in homes without enough food. Among our homeless population, there are nearly 2.5 million children. Mr. Mwangi points particularly to the racial inequality in this country, highlighting the staggering rate of incarceration for African-American men, which is nearly six times the rate for white men.
Mr. Mwangi and his peers are not suggesting that Westerners simply stay home or disengage with Africans. They are pushing them to take an honest look at their motives for helping overseas versus at home, think about how their efforts could potentially diminish or supplant African-grown initiatives and consider a more respectful connection between equals.
As Mr. Mwangi said to a group of students at Duke University: “If you want to come and help me, first ask me what I want… Then we can work together.”
This article first appeared on The New York Times Opinion section.