A Kenyan activist challenges the motives and methods of Americans who volunteer abroad.
Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan activist and photographer
An increasing number of Americans are volunteering abroad. The New York Times reports that an estimated 1 million Americans go overseas to volunteer each year, and African countries are the most popular destinations for these trips. Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan activist profiled in a New York Times Op-Doc video, wants to know: “why?”
The video documents a visit Mwangi made to Carrborro High School in North Carolina, posing this same question. One student tells Mwangi she wanted to volunteer abroad as an advocate for women’s rights in India, Africa, and the Middle East.
“So as a woman of color, why would you travel all the way to India to talk about women when you have race issues in your country that affect your people, people who look like you, and young black men? If you speak about it here, they’ll hear you more, because you’re local,” Mwangi says bluntly, before apologizing for putting her on the spot.
She stares at him for a moment and blinks, obviously taken aback. “Um…I don’t know,” she says and shrugs. “I guess people in India, the Middle East, and Africa suffer more than women here do.” She then quickly reconsiders, acknowledging that it might be better to gain experience in women’s advocacy in the United States before taking her ambitions abroad. Their brief discussion brought to mind a great bit by The Daily Show’s new correspondent Trevor Noah on the inaccurate perceptions Americans have of African nations versus the reality.
“There’s a clear sense of glorification and faux heroism. When I’m here locally in Durham doing very similar work, people aren’t as excited by it,” one Duke University student says, a participant of an international volunteer program that invited Mwangi to speak during his trip to the United States.
Among the uncomfortable revelations during Mwangi’s speech and roundtable discussion was that it’s likely foreign volunteers in African countries benefit more from the experience than the communities they are trying to help thanks to the resume- and university application-enhancing powers of such a unique, altruistic endevor.
Mwangi and his fellow activists stop short of asking Westerners to leave Africa and disengage from efforts to improve conditions. Instead, they want people to reassess why they want to volunteer specifically in Africa and how they want to make a difference. Mwangi believes that students should spend time volunteering and advocating for change in their own communities before going international.
“There’s nothing wrong with service, and helping others by going abroad. I think it’s a very noble idea. The question is why are you doing it? Why go abroad when you can stop at the local homeless shelter?” Mwangi says, pointing especially to the experiences of black Americans in their own country. “My concern is that while you guys are out trying to save the word, you’re neglecting what’s going on at home. “