An upmarket hotel in Kampala, Uganda's capital city, was the venue last weekend for the first conference held by No White Saviours, an activist group calling for an end to white people being depicted as heroes in Africa.
The audience was a mix of black Africans, Americans and white people from Europe and the US, including many aid workers. It included Kenyans who will hold another event called "Beyond Whiteness" in Nairobi in October, focused on much the same issue.
Though a lot of the discussion was about US evangelicalism or European colonisation, Ireland got an early nod. One of the speakers on the first panel, Ugandan writer Siima Itabaaza, referred to Bono as "our favourite white saviour". Attendees chuckled.
The popularity of No White Saviours – which now boasts more than 200,000 Instagram followers – speaks to a wider movement, where Africans are beginning to question the way they are portrayed globally. Under particular scrutiny are unskilled foreigners who pose with poor African people, sharing the photos online and giving the impression they are doing work that's necessary or admirable.
"If you know you can't do something in your home don't do it in Africa," said Olivia Alaso, a Ugandan social worker and one of the No White Saviours founders. "Be willing to listen when you come to Africa... People want to come in and lead... That's wrong. You're taking our right to leadership."
Alaso set up No White Saviours with Kelsey Nielsen, an American with an evangelical background who describes herself as a "white saviour in recovery".
At the conference, Nielsen spoke about her own experience coming to Uganda at 23 to head a charity. She said she was completely unqualified, and yet no one doubted her.
“I was praised by my family, I was praised by my friends... You could go to Uganda to set up a strip club and people would think you were saving babies,” she said.
If Nielsen hadn’t begun to question her own actions, she could have caused significant harm, she posited, pointing to recent scandals.
One is the case of Renee Bach, an American missionary who came to Uganda aged 18. Bach is accused of causing the deaths of more than 100 children, after setting up a centre to treat malnutrition. Witnesses say she presented herself as a medical worker, despite having no medical training. Bach denies the charges and a trial will begin next year.
Though Bach was mentioned repeatedly during the conference, No White Saviours argue the damage caused by smaller actions is also worth ruminating on. “The selfie in the village is not as harmful as Renee,” said Nielsen, “but we have to understand that the desire to take a selfie is coming from the same place.”
Instagram, the popular social media photo-sharing app, is a key battleground. British journalist Stacey Dooley discovered that earlier this year, when she posted a photo of herself carrying a young Ugandan boy on a trip for Comic Relief. Dooley was criticised by British MP David Lammy for perpetuating "tired and unhelpful stereotypes".
For the past five years, "Humanitarians of Tinder" has been sharing photographs to its 21,000 Facebook followers, calling out white people who use photographs with babies and children in developing countries for their dating profiles. The satirical "Barbie Saviour" Instagram page presents Barbie as the kind of white saviour the conference organisers condemn. It has more than 167,000 followers.
Activists campaigning against “white saviourism” point out that African people have been victims of both slavery and colonisation. Unskilled foreigners coming to Africa, acting like they’re more capable than the country’s citizens, is both racist and another form of colonial belittlement, they say.
They criticise the media, saying black people are constantly dehumanised or portrayed as victims. The normalisation of these depictions can have knock-on effects on Africans’ confidence and sense of self-worth.
“Either they’re trying to save you or you’re beautiful,” said one Ugandan journalist. “You’re not allowed to be a complex person.”
Speakers also argued the West is profiting hugely from the African continent, and aid delivered usually has strings attached. Alaso said she would be happy if foreigners came to Uganda as tourists instead and spent money, helping the economy.
“Africa has a lot to offer,” she said. “But you come here as a 14/15-year-old and you want to volunteer in this orphanage? How did your trip benefit the African people? It benefited you…
“Africa is not a playground. This is a beautiful continent with very beautiful, intelligent people.”