The Burden

The children sat unsmiling, clutching the presents on their knees. The photographer a middle-aged German, had tried to press them into them into unwrapping their gifts. The children weepily resisted his encouragements. Finally he had removed – wrenched – the gift from the arms of a five-year-old, and begun to tear the paper away” (Forna, 90)

This passage in the novel was one that stuck with me while reading this novel. It reminded me a lot of what I see in everyday life. In our society there is this perception that the western world goes into Africa, donate to the ‘helpless’ Africans and sudden they are all happy. However this passage disproves that. These children were not exactly happy when they received their gifts in fact they did not want to open them. The photographer literally had to force them to feign happiness so he can get a good picture to take back to his country so people can see all the good the west is doing for the country. In a lot of mission and service trips we see the image of the westerner in a sea of smiling African children. These mission trips are a misrepresentation of what the need actually is and perpetuates the idea of voluntourism, where people travel to impoverished countries and perform service and believe they have helped and done their work. Most often, the work they have done may not have benefitted the population at all. I once read an article of a group of students traveling to an African village to build houses, they worked and lived for two month and were able to produce 10 homes. The unfortunate part, however, none of the villagers wanted to live in the homes. The volunteers neglected to consult the people in the village and when building the design of the house and how the door was placed was not accepted by the people as they saw the placement to bring evil spirits. This passage reminded me of this article the volunteers wanted so badly for the village people to love and live in the homes they built as the German wanted the children to enjoy the gifts. The issue though was the privilege group did not seek to understand the needs of the underprivileged.

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Posted on October 16, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Somayna! I think you bring up some good points – so far away and so full of expectations are donors (who decide the needs of those who they see are in need) are often perplexed by a reality they did not allow enter into their view. This passage also struck me – but what caught me the most was the next few lines – when the kids start to tear away the paper as the westernized gift process begins to sink in for what I assume is the first time. I found myself making assumptions about these children and the foreign photographer, mainly about the experience of that whole event. How did the kids feel – did they like the toys? What did the parents think? While I do believe all children deserve toys, I’m not sure a westernized version of gift giving within the Sierra Leonnian context is a natural thing, and of course there is this dynamic between the invisible ‘senders’ and the sudden receivers.

  2. kowlessarchristine

    This is a great passage and I agree with your interpretation of it, how it disproves that the help the western world gives Africa is as great as society perceives, that Africans are all of sudden happy because volunteers stayed for two months. While I do not incredibly berate volunteers for what they had tried to do in Africa, I agree that they have their faults. I think that something that benefits anyone of any population, of any ethnic background is others having an understanding of their culture, of their traditions, of the work and determination they had possibly instilled in themselves to live their lives as happily as they can. (At this point I cannot help but associate this scene with the one in Nervous Conditions when Tambu is trying to sell her maize, but the white lady believes she is orphan and gives her money for that reason instead.) One cannot just step in and try to help us, thinking they know what our needs are when they honestly do not know anything about us. I find the article you mentioned reading very interesting. It makes me wonder if many have read the same or perhaps a similar article, volunteers especially, and have taken the beliefs of the people they try to help into consideration when they build new homes now. One cannot make someone truly love something if he or she does not truly believe in it.

  3. I love the passage you chose, and I think like you said it does represent the stereotypical image of Americans or Europeans coming over and rescuing the African people without understanding what they really need or desire. This also represents how those in the Western world value material things too much, where as those that they are trying to help are facing much larger issues than not having a soccer ball to play with. In addition to this scene, I think Adrian also represents this idea because he feels it is his responsibility to cure Agnes and others in the ward. He represents the stereotypical image we talked about at the very beginning of the semester of the white man swooping in and trying to be a hero. Along with the photographer forcing the children to open the presents without understanding what they really need, Adrian feels the need to visit Agnes without realizing the complexities of the situation at the time. Both the scene of the photographer and Adrian represent the image of the white man helping the “helpless” African without understanding all of the issues surrounding those that they feel are their responsibility to help.

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