By Carolyn Moraa
There is a lot of talk condemning “white saviorism” these days. As a proud Kenyan woman, it is not lost on me that the conversationalists on the topic are often from North America, and frankly are often white. A discussion on an idea referring to a white person, or white culture, rescuing people of colour from their own situation, requires more variety in the voices. Specifically, this topic deserves more voices from the Global South, and particularly from Africans.
In my conversations with colleagues, friends, families and neighbours, people are angry and insulted — although not for how it is being portrayed. The underlying factor we talk about is ignorance; ignorance of people in the West who often share this term of “white saviourism” who are self-described “experts” in international development, including in this magazine. Conversations, opinions and judgments are passed without inquiring from its subject: the people on the ground in the communities themselves.
I have been an Educator in East Africa for 15 years. I have a Bachelor of Education and a Master’s in Strategic Management and have led at both international schools and Kenyan schools. In my role as Director of WE Villages, East Africa, I have also facilitated, led and executed with the team on development projects across Narok County in Kenya within the education, clean water and sanitation, food security, healthcare and creation of income opportunities for the last 10 years. I have dedicated much of my professional career to overseeing the administration of WE’s Kisaruni Group of High Schools, as well as the WE College.
A couple of critics have suggested that WE Charity is guilty of “White Saviourism”. This is insulting to me and the team. Critics are ignoring the reality that WE Charity isn’t a bunch of white people in Canada, but is instead a Kenyan-registered non-governmental organization operated by a team comprised of 98 per cent Kenyans — from local leadership, to community mobilization, to delivering programs. The insinuation is insulting to people like me, as we are a well-established, thoughtful operation executing on world-class development work. The WE Charity development programs happening in Kenya are not unilaterally created out of Canada. It seems that people don’t understand this. Frankly, incorrect and ignorant assumptions are being made without understanding. I’m here to set the record straight and will use an example of Kisaruni High School — one of WE Kenya’s largest regional programs.
WE Charity’s early development work, starting in 1999, focused on primary education and removing barriers to that education. Then we began to ask ourselves the question of, ’what is next?’. The dream of continuing the educational path for the thousands of young children, from primary education to high school, began to take shape. This was a fundamental shift within the Kenyan framework, as there is a stark change in the school fees, structure, and educational system for students who wish to join the high school level.
We called a meeting of local stakeholders — chiefs, pastors, women group leaders, local government officials and community elders — to determine, ’If we were to build a high school, how would we want it to be?’ For three days, we sat and discussed until we landed on the name and philosophy of the school. Within this process, we extended an invitation and request to some of the best minds in education to collaborate in creating a new possibility for youth in rural Narok South. Together we designed a new path forward for education in Narok, and the school was named Kisaruni.
Kisaruni was a word created by joining the two local ethnic group languages together, the Kipsigis and the Maasai, and translates to ’a safe place of peace’. Five points on a school philosophy arose, with parental involvement in the continual passing on of the cultural education interwoven into the school schedule, disciplinary process, and more. The School Philosophy, created by the community, includes:
1. Being Community: Kisaruni Girls Secondary School shall be a place where each individual experiences the family feel, is responsible to others and the environment, is heard, is appreciated, takes care of each other no matter what and where, remembers that we are all peacemakers.
2. Building on Cultural Values: We honour and maintain the education that we bring with us from our families and communities, i.e. respect, responsibility, courage, honesty, generosity and hospitality, among others. We strengthen our abilities to be respectful, responsible, honest and humble.
3. Valuing Diversity: We recognize and develop the gifts, talents and differences of each of us, and value the contribution of each of us.
4. Promoting Leadership: We strengthen the sense of self-confidence and build the skills and abilities needed to have a voice, be heard and have the power to contribute to our communities and the world.
5. Encouraging Active Learning: We maximize learning by offering a curriculum that promotes inquisitiveness, interaction, participation and full engagement in the learning process to ensure success.
This process of engaging the community leadership is how we began, run, and continue to lead the Kisaruni Girls High School, Kisaruni Boys High School and WE College, as examples.
The foundation of transformation within a community, a region and a nation happens through trusting, respectful relationships. While there is respect and understanding of WE Charity’s leadership in Canada, grassroots efforts on the ground in the field is where real work happens. It is here, where change is executed. It is here, where the cultural engagement of deep conversations and relationships are built.
I welcome visitors to our community
It is trendy now to attack travellers to developing countries, in their visit or volunteer post. I struggle with this inference. Do critics think I cannot stand up for myself? That I cannot speak about my own culture to people? That I would be exploited or cannot host people with pride to teach them about international development? To every person who comes, I am a teacher, I am a leader, and I am in charge of our development approach. I do not understand the shaming of volunteers or global travel. To be clear, I welcome visitors to our communities.
Why is it OK to host travellers in a bubble of wealth in a resort in Kenya, but people criticize those who want to learn about our culture? For years, we have hosted international volunteers. We welcome people to engage with our Kenyan learners and educate visitors of what is happening in our corner of the world. This creates local employment. We need jobs in tourism and engagement. We are not looking for hand-outs; we are looking for partnership. Having visitors come on ME to WE Trips is extremely transformational for our work in Kenya. My fellow community members share they have a positive experience in welcoming guests. Students at the schools appreciate the opportunity to engage and meet with students from Canada and learn more about the global community. It provides an opportunity for learning and sharing that has resulted in increased awareness and empowerment for students in Kenya. The impact has been transformational when donors or potential donors visit our projects and make commitments to support future projects. I have personally hosted many donors who have made such commitments to projects, and this has led to the Kisaruni boarding free high schools, WE College educating the next generation of leaders, Baraka Hospital providing the only maternity wing in the area and more. As Kenyans, we appreciate the interest and respect of our culture, and continue to welcome their presence.
It is easy for academics and theorists from the comfort of their easy lives to debate “white saviourism” — tearing down a charity, while publishing an article in this magazine to help them get ’likes’ on their social media, to increase their academic tenure track, or pitch their services as consultants. The impact of this approach is that now WE Charity is weakened. Why haven’t critics of the WE model actually come to see the model here in Kenya, nor spoken to a single person in my community? The lack of time and consideration to understand is very disappointing. Once you seek to understand thoroughly, then you comment with wisdom.
It is easy to criticize. It is hard to create. Critics, I ask you: are you willing to step in and join our efforts? Or is it satisfying enough to show the people in Canada that you are ’woke’ and use terms like ’white saviourism’? As a society, we do not just need to write articles to tear down and attack; we need real committed action. Where is your action to make a difference? People may feel smug throwing stones, but there were 18 communities in Kenya that were supposed to receive clean water, schools, development support that will not because of the closing of WE Charity. To all the people who shared critiques on social media or tore down with criticisms, where are your actions that will help my community?
My message is simple. Learn before you attack someone else. Critics never took the time to visit or see our real work. This magazine’s last issue had negative articles about the development model — and yet not a single person writing had actually seen Baraka Hospital, Kisaruni School, WE College, the WE Villages clean water projects, primary schools, mobile clinics, women groups, small community businesses, etc., that myself and my team have worked for years to build in Kenya. Not one. I invite anyone, anywhere in the world, who has seen our WE Villages work in Kenya to comment on it.
Carolyn Moraa is associate director of education Kisaruni Girls Secondary School in Kenya.