Of Monsoons and Monsanto

6 Jul


I guess you could file this in the ‘What were they thinking?’ file.

Thirty-something actress Louise Linton, perhaps finding it difficult to drum up work in L.A., decided to publish a book about her younger self helping poor black people in Zambia.

And indeed, In Congo’s Shadow hits all the classic White Saviour high notes. Presence of dangerous armed rebels who might rape and kill her: check. The desire to teach poor Africans something “about the world”: check. Personal tragedy in the form of a beloved family member recently lost to cancer: check. References to her slim shape and long, blond ‘angel’ hair as a counterpoint to everyone else around her: check. Friendship with a small, innocent child who inspires not only compassion but a deeper understanding of the really important things in life: check.

But rather than the expected esteem of First World readers in awe of her youthful courage and selflessness, Linton was met by a wave of opprobrium – especially from Zambians – who called bullshit on the mawkish memoirs.

‘Delusional White Woman Louis Linton Draws Ire of Zambian Twitter for Egregious “African” Memoir,’ ran a headline in the culture magazine Okay Africa.

In fact, in contrast to Linton’s syrupy prose, some of the best Twitter remarks stood out for their wit and right on-ness. They hit on the arrogance, the stereotyping and the absurdity of the mindset that Africans exist to make white people feel good about themselves.

The Twittersphere was soon joined by CNN, the BBC, The Guardian and Buzzfeed in pointing out the book’s howling inaccuracies. Rebel militia spilling over from Congo? Not much of that in 1999 and not in the area where Linton said she lived. Hiding beneath the jungle canopy? Not much of that either in Zambia, which is mostly savannah. And monsoon rains? Well, as one Twitter user put it, “Monsoon season in Zambia? Yes, after the snow melts.” Said another, “All that’s missing is Tarzan and Mowgli.”

There are (so far) 170 negative reviews on the book’s Amazon page – (“White Savior” Trope Taken to Shocking New Lows is just one example), and a hashtag – #LintonLies – has begun making the rounds. Linton herself, meanwhile, has deleted her own Twitter account.

I don’t think this was quite the reaction she was hoping for.

In some ways though Linton is an easy target. In my book, The Anatomy of Giving, I have a chapter on celebrity do-gooders, including what I consider a new subset, the would-be celebrity – like Greg Mortensen or Alison Thompson – who attempts to parlay their aid work into fame, and with whom Linton shares not a few aspects in common. They’re targets because their lying gets found out, or because their ideas of themselves are ridiculed.

But I have always seen them as symbols of our more prevalent First-World conviction that anytime an attractive celebrity goes and helps a poor person the important and marvelous thing is the fact he or she wants to help, that they’re even aware of poverty. The fact that vast numbers of people are poor, and it’s because of many complex factors, including political ones? That’s the bit that inevitably gets missed.

Because, in the end, how different is Linton from the IMF or Bill Gates or the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition? You may not have heard of the latter, but it’s a body with over a billion dollars of funding that essentially wants African countries to make business-friendly policy reforms so that companies like Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Nestle will feed their people for them.

Delusional? Luckily I’m not the only one who thinks so.

But I’d love to see Twitter users get their verbal knives sharpened for these particular White Saviours.



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