The Not-So-White Saviour Complex

by Sajidah Hirkento

When I first heard about the white saviour complex as a junior in high school, I was entertained, relieved, and pleasantly satisfied that they [sociologists/anthropologists/whoever articulated these things] had finally come up with a diagnosis for the disease whose effects I had observed and lived in east Africa.

Finally, instead of endless and emotive rambling and gossip in pity and anger, I could logically oppose and [quite bluntly] trash the approaches of some of the expatriate workers whom I observed and interacted with in my home country. I jeered and laughed, mocking the unscientific, inefficient, uneducated, and uncivilised way in which these expats sought to educate, and enlighten the communities they were working in. “Even science says it’s stupid.”

As a black Kenyan girl, growing up in a Kenyan home in the capital city, I occasionally heard stories of non-contextualised foreign [mostly western] interventions, and I was sometimes on the receiving end of it. At best, it was good hearty guffaw with friends and family that lit up evening meals and tea. At worst it was an incredulous and frustrating lament that darkened and aged the night sky. It was the general consensus that white expatriates were dumb — until their approaches were accepted as ingenious.

I could finally judge. And judge I did, until one day, while distributing used clothes and shoes to school children in a rural part of the country, a young girl told me that the jacket I had given her was not her size. “Well, you should be grateful you even got something!”, was the initial response on my tongue as I turned to the small person speaking to me, among the throng of loud, expectant children.

Her dark eyes stopped me dead in my tracks as I realised the full impact of what had just happened, and what the group of city Kenyans I was with were doing out here in the rural country, on a hot and stuffy afternoon. I felt my honey chocolate shades turn pink, and every kink of my African curls straighten out and turn blonde, as guilt washed over me in the realization that I had come into this community with a white-saviour attitude.

As I reflected on this incident, and our time outside of the city, I saw truly how our intervention had not been tailored to understand the community, but rather was geared towards giving them what we thought they needed. We may have had the best intentions, carefully cleaning out our closets, fundraising for a week of living in underdeveloped conditions with no water or electricity, thin floor mattresses and makeshift toilets and bathrooms, and even adapted our clothing to fit into the community. However, our point of engagement had not been primarily to listen or learn; we were there to give.

This was the first of many other aha moments that brought out my white-saviour tendencies, convincing me that it wasn’t white at all; it was just human and selfish. Giving is a great thing that can be soured easily if I don’t need what you give, or worse, if it is harmful to you. Any intervention in any community that doesn’t take into account the perceived needs of the community, and contextualise the approach is a one-size-fits-all saviour approach.

Likewise, an attitude that characterizes the community as a target, as opposed to a partnership, is a saviour attitude. In pointing fingers and ridiculing white expat interventions in my country, I actually just ended up pointing more fingers at myself. We, as human beings, are not here to save people, or communities, or the world. We are here to work together with individuals and communities to grow them to their full potential, as they grow us to our full capacity. It is not just an intervention, or mission, it’s a commitment and a partnership.



Sajidah Hirkento (a pseudonym) is a 25-year-old artist and health systems researcher. She scripts the silent conversations in her mind stemming from various life experiences in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, The United States, Europe, and the Middle East.