The Missionary: A cautionary tale for would-be “white saviors”

iHeartRadio

It’s clear from the outset of this podcast that we aren’t really supposed to like Renee Bach. She’s not the type of character that educated, self-regarding podcast listeners are especially keen to relate to. Renee is precocious, confident, ambitious, religious, and convinced that she’s been chosen by a higher power to stage a humanitarian intervention in Africa, aged 19.

The early promise that her squeaky clean image will implode keeps us listening, as we learn that our protagonist will ultimately be sued over the deaths of more than one hundred Ugandan children. It’s a classic, spectacular “fall from grace” scenario that we can all tut and shake our heads at in satisfying unison.

Or, so it initially seems.

Some listeners will have heard of the Bach case, which has garnered considerable interest (as a story about the “genocidal”-girl-next-door is want to do…), but here it is retold with fresh detail by three narrators — Rajiv Golla, Halima Gikandi and Malcolm Burnley — who carefully unpick the many, many layers of this modern cautionary tale. We’re left questioning the very notion of a “mission” and reexamining the motivations of those who feel called to perform good deeds in foreign lands.

Inevitable comparisons are drawn with the colonial missionaries of yesteryear who quite deliberately and openly hijacked the African “cause” as a vehicle to achieve their own reputational and spiritual ambitions.

Through The Missionary we learn about Bach’s non-profit, Serving His Children, a project that rapidly evolved from a humble feeding program for malnourished children in Jinja, Uganda into a fully staffed — but unlicensed — medical unit. A unit presided over for many years by a completely unqualified teenager who soon began performing specialized medical procedures, according to the accusations against her.

The podcast uses readings from Bach’s starry-eyed blog to illustrate how she perceived and conveyed her work in Uganda at the time. Dramatic, and now hotly contested, tales of poverty and self-sacrifice (her own) were published online for eager audiences of generous Christian donors back in the States. It’s a great device, and it draws out the grossness of subject’s utter conceit. This mission isn’t about Africa, children, or even God; it’s about the self-beatification of Bach.

Yet, these reporters also want to emphasize that Renee Bach, far from being an exception, is actually typical of the hoards of young, white, ambitious pre-college teens that flock to the African continent to indulge in a kind of competitive piousness. Social media feeds buzz with the posts of would-be Mother Theresas whose outward demonstrations of so-called passion, piety, and commitment are valued more highly than skill or experience.

We also learn of a growing movement, led by groups like No White Saviors, that works to identify these vanity projects and hold them to account while amplifying the local voices that are noticeably absent from typical missionary narratives. Local voices that reveal truth behind a story of lies and horrifying negligence.

Gratifyingly, The Missionary doesn’t tell us what to think about the dichotomy that groups like No White Saviors establish in places like Jinja. It feels obvious that their impact is at least partially problematic, as with all self-appointed watchdogs. In interviews, Kelsey Nielson, a self-proclaimed “recovering white savior” and founder of the group, also comes off as more than a little smug as she witheringly describes how white people “fetishize black suffering”, adding that “people love that shit.”

It’s unclear just how expert Nielson’s take is, and though the cause of her organization may seem noble enough, her interviews at least tease the idea that this outrage is partially motivated by her own rejection (Nielson originally came over as a young missionary herself, but wasn’t embraced into the popular clique). In a context where status is derived from one’s position on the moral highground, The Missionary tells us that Nielson has found a new kind of piety that cleverly allows her to condescend to her peers and escape derision, all while remaining white and something of a “savior.”

This wonderful ambiguity — who is a hero and who is a villain? — typifies what The Missionary does well, at least initially. We can condemn the horrific liberties Bach takes as she masquerades as a medic, but we are also forced to contemplate the accounts of those who praise the facility and the work it did. We may balk at her self-pity, but we are reminded that she is only a human and that ultimately this dreadful circumstance is the mangled result of what started out as good intentions.

Where the podcast falls down, is that it ends with an opinion that the listener didn’t ask for. We’re told that the evidence leads us to the conclusion that Bach must be jailed. That this is the only way to deter would-be white saviors. But that’s not the only conclusion to be drawn from this complex story and, perhaps more importantly, it retracts the invitation every podcast like this should offer — for its audience to listen and decide for themselves.

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