How Equipped is Equipped Enough?

I recently read an article about a young woman who moved to Uganda at 19 and started a center for malnourished children. This ministry grew over the course of ten years. Some of those children died, and she is now being sued for deceiving parents into thinking she was a trained doctor running a medical clinic.

I considered this story with conflicting feelings. This young woman was extremely young to have taken on such a complicated problem as dying children. I don’t know all the details, but it does seem like this she crossed some ethical boundaries. It’s difficult to tell if she deliberately deceived people or if she just wasn’t wise about how she presented herself. It seems like she didn’t work hard enough to maintain proper licensing with the authorities. 

However, it does seem like the opportunity to care for starving babies kind of threw itself in her lap. She saw a need, and she wanted to fill it. She believed strongly that there weren’t better options available for these children. She did hire Ugandan medical personnel, and at least at one point, she was licensed by the government. So was she helping more than hurting? Was she wise to jump into this opportunity even though she wasn’t equipped? 

This story makes me think about several missionary friends who moved to remote African villages to do church planting or community development, but ended up doing medical work on the side. With very few medical options available in the community, people came to them to dress wounds or help a sick child simply because having a supply of antibiotics and Google made them more equipped than anyone else in the community. Should they have refused to help because they weren’t trained medical workers? 

And what about other types of service? Realizing that you are in way over your head is like a rite of passage in missions work. Wait, what? Your missions training didn’t teach you how to kill snakes? Or how to deal with the demon-possessed child foaming at the mouth on your doorstep? You weren’t trained in children’s ministry? Too bad, you get to do children’s ministry. You can’t carry a tune? Oh well, when the pastor asks you to lead worship, you get to do it anyway. You don’t know anything about eating disorders? Well, if there are no psychologists in your area, I guess you’ll be the one to help the girl in your youth group.

Gladys Aylward, the famous British missionary to China, was a housemaid from a poor family and had almost no formal education. A missions agency turned her down, saying that she wasn’t learning the language fast enough. Yet she went on to serve the poor of China for 25 years, save the lives of many orphans, advocate against foot-binding and for prison reform, and bring many to know Jesus. She once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China…It must have been a well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing and God looked down and saw Gladys Aylward. And God said–’Well, she’s willing.’”

Don’t all of us who serve overseas think this sometimes….or often? Wouldn’t a person who learned languages faster be better at this job? Shouldn’t someone be doing this who has a seminary degree, or teaching experience, or who studied social work? Wouldn’t someone older than me be better at this? What missionary hasn’t felt like she was drowning in a sea of her own incompetence? Is there any cross-cultural worker who has moved overseas and felt truly equipped for what he ended up doing? 

Yet, at the same time, those of us who have had some experience in missions keep banging the same drum to those desiring to move overseas: Get equipped. Get trained. Stop sending people who don’t know what they are doing. Ill-equipped people often hurt more than they help. For every successful Gladys Aylward, there are a dozen others who burn out or burn others out….or get sued for doing medical work they weren’t qualified for. 

So how do we find that balance? How do we have high expectations of preparation for those who move overseas, while still recognizing that none of us can ever be fully equipped for what we will face? How do we honor the passionate hearts who are willing to say, “Here I am. Send me!” while remembering that saying “God called me” can be dangerous

Like so many things in life, I think that the answer lies right in the middle. I think we can say, “Get as equipped as you can” while simultaneously saying, “Recognize that you will never be fully equipped.” And remember that attitude is everything. If we go overseas with the notion that by simply being white, educated, or from a developed country makes us qualified to help people, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. We must be very careful to examine our motives, because the “white savior” mentality is sinister; it sneaks into our thinking very subtly. 

I asked a village missionary friend how she and her husband handled the issue of people coming to them for medical help. Yes, they would do what they could to help people. But they always insisted the person visit the local clinic first. Then they would look for ways to help if the clinic wasn’t able to meet needs. They also asked a qualified missionary doctor to start visiting the village a couple of times a month. They did everything they could to work within the cultural system and not usurp what was already in place. 

And what if you find yourself called to pour your whole heart into a ministry, but you aren’t qualified? Then get qualified. If you find yourself unexpectedly teaching Bible, take some online Bible courses and read some quality theology. If you realize your community needs medical help, then go back home for a nursing degree or get yourself trained in Community Health Evangelism. If you discover that what your village needs is agricultural advice, then look into getting trained through ECHO. Yes, God can (and will) use us despite our incompetence, but that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied to continue offering anything less than what could be our best. 

In the end, remember that an attitude of humility makes all the difference. Even if we already feel well-educated or equipped in the area where we are serving, we still need to recognize that we have a lot we must learn from local people in order to be effective. Asian or African answers to problems might not look the same as American answers. We need to earn the right to speak into those problems through listening, learning, and longevity. 

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.