We white people love to rescue poor, yet hard-working, and therefore deserving (by our own criteria) black people. And we love to have these stories to us in movies, like Blood Diamond, The Blind Side or The Help. We love these movies because they are conveniently guilt-free: the poor, deserving blacks, victims of their own dysfunctional culture (domestic violence in the Help, war in Sierra Leone for Blood Diamond, and generally messed-up black culture in the Blind Side), get the help they need from nice, kind white people (as opposed to the token nasty racist whites that provide a nice moral counter-point). The deserving blacks also get their negative counter-points in the form of “bad” black characters. In the process, of course, the white saviors get their own moral enlightenment thanks to the black people they help.
No discussion whatsoever of institutional racism and discrimination and the fact that racism is not just a few mean, racist white people doing racist stuff.
“If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.
The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.
That’s where Kristof comes in.
Fulamatu has the idea of having Kristof arrange, by phone, to meet with the pastor. The pastor shows up. The police arrest him. But it doesn’t end there. The pastor’s family comes to Fulamatu’s parents and begs forgiveness. The father agrees. The mother agrees. Then the mother “offers” to send Fulamatu away, to a distant village, one without a school. Then the father kicks the daughter out, but `fortunately’ Fulamatu has Kristof’s cell phone. She calls him just before the parents take the phone away. Later, Fulamatu is let, begrudgingly, back into the house, but the situation remains `fluid.’
This story is framed as part of the crisis of sexual violence, and child rape in particular, in Sierra Leone, in a delicate post-conflict zone. The only problem is that, except for the presence of celebrity witnesses, this story takes place across the United States, across Canada, across Europe. Girls are raped by family friends and by family members … everywhere. More often than not, they stay silent, sometimes forever. If they do speak, they are regularly abandoned or betrayed by surrounding adults who should care, from adult family members to police to the courts to the community and neighborhood, and beyond.
More disturbing is Kristof’s solution. He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.
That solution conveniently ignores, or erases, Sierra Leonean history. Fulamatu is indeed a courageous girl, and she is part of a history, in Sierra Leone, of courageous, hard working, truth telling, peace making girls and women. Some are in public office, like Jariatu Kamara or Mary Musa. Some are in groups that monitor public processes and empower and education women into becoming and remaining office holders, such as the 50.50 Group, a partner of WIPSEN – Africa, founded and led by Leymah Gbowee. Some of them are young women in their own movements, like Elizabeth M. Katta, of Young Voices, an organization that pushed the Sierra Leone government, in 2009, to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Some are advocates and attorneys, like Sabrina Mahtani, who work with women prisoners, to secure due process and, often, freedom. Some are businesswomen, like Admire Bio, pushing and shoving to close the gender gap … and then some. Some are village women, like Yatta Gambai, who journeyed to India to study how to bring solar energy back to the villages and now are doing just that.
Some are peacemakers, like the members of the Women’s Movement for Peace in Sierra Leone or the unnamed hundreds of Sierra Leonean women who journeyed to the Great Lakes region of the Democratic Republic of Congo to march for peace, to march for an end to violence against women. Some are women, like Hawa, struggling with a health care system that, on one hand, is free and, on the other, still doesn’t deliver, especially when it comes to pregnant women and girls. Some are women farmers, targeted by major land grabs, struggling to resist and do better than survive. Not one by one. In groups and movements.
Sierra Leone is a tough place for women and girls, maybe among the worst. But that does not mean that the courageous ones are alone, any more than anywhere else, or that they’re waiting for Nicholas Kristof’s phone number. Another narrative is possible.”
Another narrative is certainly possible but it is what privilege does: it lets some people (based on class, race and gender) set the terms of the narratives that will be propagated in the culture.