Summer Series: Writing Wrongs – The language of aid, development and neo-colonialism

She was a “white Muzungu with long angel hair” who fell in love with a German pilot, singlehandedly started a school for HIV-positive children, and managed to survive a vicious attack on her host village from genocidaires connected to the Hutu-Tutsi conflicts of the 1990s.

At least, that’s the story Louise Linton tells in her now-retracted memoir, In Congo’s Shadow, which supposedly documents her 1999 gap year at a Zambian fishing lodge. The factually-dubious account provoked furore earlier this month for its historical inaccuracies, geographical errors, and less-than-subtle embellishments on the truth. Zambians were joined by the wider international development community in condemning the account; the Zambian High Commission in London went as far as to refer to the memoir as “falsified… tarnishing the image of a very friendly and peaceful country.” As expected in such circumstances, the book and Linton’s accompanying interview with the Daily Telegraph have been pulled from print.

Louise Linton’s story, and her downfall, are useful examples when discussing the problems that surround the language of international development, especially when it comes to the rapidly blossoming genre of memoirs from the field. It is undoubtedly true that it is an incredibly difficult task to write about the work done by interventionists, state-sponsored aid workers, or the employees/associates of NGOs, and especially so when it is among the world’s most vulnerable populations. From the infamous Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures) to Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s heartbreaking account of the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands With the Devil, literature that discusses and documents the most extreme circumstances and most horrific human rights abuses is designed to evoke a response. The problem doesn’t lie in talking, or writing, about human rights abuses, humanitarian crises, disease, or poverty, but in the moment when evocative language strays into untruth. It seems cynical, or even alarmist, but Linton’s deliberate misrepresentations and those found in similar books are not just embellishment or artistic license – they’re fundamentally dangerous and dishonest.

A white woman in Malawi showing local children the photo she took of them, by John Y Can

What this ultimately boils down to is a kind of colonialism, in which Westerners are white saviours and the “dark heart of Africa,” as Linton puts it, needs saving. This is presented by articles and interviews and books by people who see themselves as part of a narrative that always tells a story of Africa as a backward continent. A picture is painted of mud huts, HIV, and child soldiers that bears very little resemblance to the reality and wide variety of life in Africa. It ignores the current successes and brimming potential of African nations like Zambia; it insists instead on an outdated, black-and-white – quite literally – outlook on the world that fails to acknowledge that difference does not mean inferiority. So often, the problems faced by nations on the African continent can be traced back to European colonialism, and a continued insistence that it must be Europe that tells Africa’s story only perpetuates these problems.

Zambia, for example, is reliant on tourism as one means to income and investment, and ‘bad PR’ (for want of a better phrase) has an impact on people choosing to visit the nation and invest in its economy. That is what is damaged with ill-thought comments on Africa; people choose to listen to those that look like them, speak like them, and have lived similar lives to them. When individuals in Europe and the West portray Africa as ‘savage,’ those around them take note, even if it is a false premise to begin with. This is not to suggest that nations like Zambia are entirely reliant on Western travel and tourism in order to survive and thrive – that would equally be a form of colonialist language – but an argument that opening up the world more to the vibrancy and variety of Africa is not about understanding the continent only on our terms.

Linton is not alone in being a Westerner who travelled to the African continent to volunteer, and who has profited – or, at least, attempted to profit – from the memoir they’ve produced as a result of their travels. To what extent this has been at the expense of African people is rapidly becoming clearer. To use another example from the disaster that was In Congo’s Shadow, Linton published photographs of HIV-positive children, ignoring the potential damage that the stigma surrounding the disease might have on those children who could be so easily identified in the pictures. To call it lack of forethought seems like letting Linton off the hook.

In short, we have an obligation to document, by written word or by mouth, the injustice of human rights abuses, and the need for sustainable and sensitive international aid and development. That is what it means to be a global citizen, and where we failed as a community in instances such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, to name just a few of the best known examples. What we do not have the right to, however, is to dictate what someone else’s story should be. We owe it to ourselves and to others to remove the veil of colonialism that so often clouds our language, in order that the truth of situations might actually be heard.

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