How We Represent

I like this image because it shows Meddy Katende, 3 year RUFC volunteer who is a health professional based in Kampala, leading an exercise with teens while USC student Ashley Millhouse looks on learning not leading.

I’ve learned to be very careful with the language I use to explain why I do what I do. I stress social justice, not charity. The truth is I love Uganda and love spending time with my Ugandan friends. I’ve also learned to always have my Ugandan colleagues speak for our programs.
So there has been a lot of debate surrounding the representation of rural African communities by non-profits and other tourists for publicity and I would like to address the issue here. The argument stems from the sharing of photos depicting impoverished African locals as sick, defeated or in need of a western savior. In the US we would not take pictures of homeless people in these circumstances to share on Facebook. When we do see such images, we certainly don’t think that those images are representative of our communities. The same is true in Uganda. Putting poor children on display for likes or even donations reinforces the stereotype that the people of Africa are all poor and would be lost if not for foreign assistance. It also reinforces the idea, so eloquently described by the US President, that these places are …. well, the language is beneath me.  Within the international development community, we all need to do better at showing the world that the people we are working with are indeed real people and share the same emotions that we do. Each one of them is an individual with thoughts and aspirations. They are not additions to our resume and are not tools to accelerate the growth of our Facebook page. With that said, it is true that in some communities there is considerable need for education, health care and infrastructure and there are ways we can help.   At RUFC, we have tried to be sensitive to issues of representation from the start. To begin with, we strive to be sure our work itself is responsible and empowering. We recognize that change requires ongoing partnership and investment so we commit to the same partners and work in the same communities for years at a time. Thus, when I take a selfie or a picture surrounded by Ugandans, they are most often very good friends of mine – not nameless strangers. Second, all our programs are Ugandan-led. At all times we work through local community–based organizations, such as Global Health Network Uganda and Youth Rising. During camp, Ugandan university students work with and teach young Ugandan youth and while foreign volunteers are helpful in our programs, they are in no means essential. We see the role of our foreign volunteers as our students – there to learn about the rich culture and growing capacity of Ugandan communities, regardless of their economic status. Bringing diverse people together is part of our mission to enhance global citizenship – it is not to provide charity – and we hope that our volunteer program results in new advocates for social justice – not the perpetuation of problematic imagery.   We have also always had a policy of showing positive imagery (its hard not to when our programs are so positive and fun). We nearly always post pictures of the youth we work with engaged in learning, soccer, dancing, or laughing. We also post pictures of Ugandans leading our programs and try to be cognizant of imagery that implies any racial division – such as those that reflect a ‘white savior’. However, I also recognize that we can do better with how we represent the communities where we work and the work itself. From now on we are adopting a set of new policies to help ensure that we are following best practices. For example, all youth in our camps will have parent signed waivers that give us permission to take and share pictures of their child – just as is done when children attend programs in the US. Additionally, whenever possible  RUFC will be adding captions with the names and job/grade of individuals captured in our pictures. Third, we will be giving all RUFC volunteers training in responsible photography and social media sharing (such as the Radi Aid Checklist) and have them sign a pledge to refrain from bad practices. If you have other recommendations or comments on how we can improve our communication, I’d love to hear them. Otherwise, please join me in doing our part as informed global travelers to accurately depict people with the same respect and privacy all over the world.  Learn a bit more about ‘poverty porn’ and other forms of irresponsible representation in this recent NPR story: 

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