The White Man’s Burden in the “Warm Heart of Africa”

Renán Orellana, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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A few weeks back, an Italian journalist arrived at the DREAM center in Balaka to report on the impressive work of the programme in providing free antiretroviral treatment and nutritional support to people living in abject poverty. The DREAM center in Balaka serves thousands of AIDS patients from numerous villages in proximity to the town. Pregnant mothers, fragile elderly and malnourished children travel long distances on foot to receive the best possible healthcare available to them, often walking on unpaved roads to reach the clinic from the most desolate villages in rural Malawi.

DREAM patients have remarkable stories of recovery, and their strength is awe-inspiring. However, countless patients rarely receive the dignity they deserve from their communities due to their HIV positive status. The encounter with the Italian reporter gave me the impression that this sentiment is not just a local reaction from Malawian villages and communities towards people living with HIV, but rather an estrangement that is also furthered by Westerners who for journalism or humanitarianism come to Africa to draw attention to the destitution in the region.

During his visit to the DREAM center, the journalist wandered through the DREAM clinic interviewing coordinators, technicians and healthcare workers, all of whom he treated with respect and professionalism. Before leaving the center, he drew out a video camera and began filming patients to document his visit in order to display for the West how the “other half” lives. I was appalled by his actions not because he was filming AIDS patients but for the way that he conducted this task. Without consent from the patients, he would film breastfeeding mothers, emaciated children petrified at the sight of an mzungu (“white-skinned person” in Chichewa), and unclothed infants undergoing full body measurements by clinic personnel.

The culmination of this incident occurred when the journalist spotted a gaunt woman wheezing in the corner of the hall. Her frailty and extremely poor health drew his attention immediately because not only was she at a critical stage of AIDS, but at the time, she had been informed of a presumptive diagnosis of cancer (As a side note, the supposed neoplasm turned out to be tuberculosis mimicking cancer). I am familiar with her story because during my time at the clinic in Balaka she had become my nzanga (“friend” in Chichewa). The journalist approached this patient and began trailing behind her throughout her follow-up visit to the center, filming her every move. His indiscretion as he positioned the camera a few inches from her face then walked backward to create a “zooming out” effect invoked the image of a photographer from National Geographic observing a bizarre creature in the wild.

Commercials and ads that showcase poverty and starvation aim to tug at the heartstrings of the public, often for ulterior motives. The use of heartrending images by media outlets often perpetuates a stereotypical view of Africa as a distant place of suffering and death. Rarely do we stop to consider the humanity and familiarity that dwells within these images, in which the laughter and smiles of boys and girls in Africa are just as captivating as those of their counterparts in the United States; in which the celebration of marriage holds as much societal and cultural importance in African weddings as in European ones; and in which the desire for human relationships and friendship exists as much in the developing world as in the developed world.

Ending poverty and AIDS in Africa is not the responsibility of the West. Foreign aid agencies and international development projects often designate impoverished countries in Africa as “the Other”, choosing to separate themselves from local healthcare systems instead of promoting collaboration with existing national and community relief efforts. As mentioned in my previous post, DREAM does just the opposite – it is designed to be a long-term partnership with local governments and communities. It is not about providing temporary and external aid but rather about building upon the already existent and competent human resources in African countries (local doctors, nurses, lab technicians, etc.) and about working together with the community to develop sustainable healthcare services for vulnerable and marginalized populations in Africa.

 

Renán Orellana is a senior at NYU Steinhardt studying Public Health and Poverty Studies. Contact him at: renan.orellana@nyu.edu.

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