Published on Fairplanet.org
You’re an aid worker in Nairobi, the epicentre of Kenya’s massive aid worker population. You’re sitting in on a presentation by the director of an NGO, the most ubiquitous of organisations in your city. The setting: the banquet hall of a five star hotel. On your plate: right now it’s lobster bisque, but there are another four courses coming after that. The topic of the guy’s speech: how to reduce poverty.
It was at this moment Hussein Kurji first had the idea for The Samaritans, an online mokumentary series satirising the aid industry. Surrounded by friends and family working in the aid sector, Kurji says that once he started looking, he found he had ample opportunities to pick up material for the series.
“I started listening more keenly to people's work stories from the aid industry and what came out was ripe for comedy.”
The Samaritans follows the staff at Aid for Aid, a charity which aims to “save Africa”, but whose staff have become distracted with less-than-holy pursuits. A Kenyan version of The Office, staff struggle to remember what they are employed to do, let alone pluck up the motivation to follow the morals their mission has set out for them.
Compassion fatigue has been a problem in the development and aid sectors for some time, with many arguing that the white saviour industrial complex is preventing people from having nuanced discussions about development aid.
In a time of turning tables, humour is an effective way of spreading good ideas, sticking a pin in the bubble of the saviour mentality.
The classic example? Africa for Norway, a viral aid satire video with all the traits of the typical charity campaign video: victims appearing powerless, a rallying cry asking people to support their fellow man, aid workers delivering much-needed supplies, but, in this case, it’s Africans delivering heaters to Norway.
“It’s kind of just as bad as poverty if you ask me,” says the presenter. “Frostbite kills too.”
Then another aid campaign trope appears: the charity single. It’s funny stuff, but the creators also make excellent work out of the opportunity. Rather than singing about thanking Norway for their help in the past, it’s not a case of returning the favour but rather, as they put it, “payback time”.
If most of your experience of Africa had up until this point been through aid campaigns, the cheerful, well-dressed African singers tip everything you thought you knew about the continent on its head. Showing off warm climates and beautiful beaches, by the end of the video you might be thinking, “why don’t I live there?” rather than, “thank God I don’t live there”. The video shows its cast to be empowered, taking the mickey out of what Westerners think their lives might be like.
The video also pokes a stick at the West’s tendency towards grouping Africa’s countries together as a whole and it is this idea of diversity amongst Africans that has also been central to The Samaritans team’s approach.
“We are trying to show that as a creative industry we have the ability to showcase, to the world, that Africa is not just about ‘Slums and Guns’,” explains Kurji, “that we do have a middle class population here, that we are beyond the media-loving status quo images that so often represent the continent, that we are educated and perhaps, just maybe, we have something to offer the world”.
As well as satirical videos, there is a whole genre of blogs and even memes dedicated to mocking the white saviour complex. Skeptical African Kid asks Westerners to step into his shoes and take a look at themselves from his point of view. The ease of creating memes means that anyone can pick up the image of the inquisitive boy and add their own text, so sometimes the meaning is lost. But other times it’s right on the money: “So you’re telling me people think that sharing [this] on Facebook will save me?” He asks.
Sometimes the best comedy is life itself, as exemplified on the blog ‘I went to Africa and all I got were these pictures’. A collection of images of Westerners visiting Africa taken from social media, the blog plays with the idea of glamorising aid by adding acerbic captions to the images. The caption on an image of a Caucasian female dancing with a group of Maasai men reads, “You know, I felt really welcomed when I went to Africa! It was like I was a member of the tribe!” The blog also offers a tongue-in-cheek guide to the cutest ways to take selfies hugging third world children, along with some misguided hashtags, such as “#loveorphans”.
It’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of such caustic criticism bubbling away in one corner of the blogosphere, versus the more laugh-out-loud style of The Samaritans. The show did garner the support of 74 backers on Kickstarter who pledged more than 10,000 USD to the project. “… using humour to talk about relevant issues that face the industry and Africa as a whole seems to be something that is effective and this makes the subject matter more approachable and perhaps easier to digest,” says Kurji.
Art imitates life
When Kurji and his team were crowdfunding the project on Kickstarter, they also asked supporters to submit story ideas based on their own aid work experiences that could be used as material for the series. Their website aidforaid.org is still accepting submissions – “anonymous, of course.”
Of all the stories the team received, one that stuck out for Kurji was about an NGO which had spent months planning to build latrines for a tribe which lived in a remote desert.
“They flew in consultants and grant writers and what have you from all over the world. But once the project was under way and the latrines were built for this tribe, the tribe packed up their belongings and left,” Kurji explains. “Turns out they were a nomadic tribe. Over the months of planning and people flying in and out and spending lots of money, not one expensive consultant caught that!”