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“Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!” But Mouse did not answer. “Mouse, where are you?” Elephant called. He
looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. “Sometimes, that is what it is like to do missions with you Americans,” the African storyteller commented. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.” Elephant did not mean to do harm, but he did not understand the effects he was having
on Mouse.

Harsh as this example may sound, I came to know this reality further into my service journey than I’d like to admit. Growing up in a Christian household, my parents taught me to value helping those in need and giving of myself from a young age. What I didn’t realize, however, is how toxic the “Western World” missions’ movement can be and the harm it can cause. In my mind, traveling to the other side of the world to give some new things to a family living in poverty sounded like a great idea. I’d get to visit a new place, meet new friends, have some fun, and feel good about myself for a little bit. Then I’d go back to my comfortable life in the States, virtually unchanged by my experience. I would have found no error in this and never would have guessed it could cause more harm than good in the long run.

“The “White Savior Complex” is a dangerous side effect of many mission trips 1 . We don’t realize that we love to play “savior” or Santa Claus, which is highly disempowering and even belittling to those being helped. It may give us instant gratification to hand out toys, but it ignores the long-lasting consequences. Despite our good intentions, we’re actually promoting dependence rather than empowerment. It is perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic where the benevolent, rich foreigner is savior, and the materially poor person is helpless.” We need to remember that poverty is a complex
issue that cannot be “fixed” simply by us visiting a developing country for a week. People that may have less material things than you are not helpless and cultural differences do not need to be changed or conformed to our ways of thinking, they are what make our world beautiful.

I write none of these things to condemn or inflict guilt on an individual that may have unknowingly caused harm on a short-term mission trip in the past but rather in hopes to educate and encourage all of us to examine our heart intentions for service. When we are presented with an opportunity to serve, although it may be unnatural at first, I would challenge all of us to take some time to research the organization, their mission, and what you are being asked to do on the trip. Oftentimes harm can come through sending American volunteers to a community to complete a task they may not necessarily be qualified for, simply because of this “white savior complex.” For example, an organization may invite a team of common people from the United States to help build a house when they could have fundraised to hire local construction workers to do the task instead, in turn placing the funds back into their own community. Also, much like in the States, families and head of households in Zimbabwe crave to take ownership in the place they live by something as simple as building a garden or a piece of their home. By barging in on someone’s property and taking over, we are robbing them of the opportunity to provide and take pride in their contribution.

So, what is a foreigner’s place in international missions? I think it can be
summed up in this sentence: we may not be needed but we are welcomed, to observe, build relationships, encourage and learn. I have seen this to be true while traveling throughout the US, Asia, Central America, and Zimbabwe alike. Simply by showing respect for a culture different than your own, asking questions, providing assistance in areas it is asked for, admitting you always have more to learn, and encouraging local communities to keep pressing on is the most impactful thing we can do. Being welcomed into a new group of people as one of their own is a humbling experience, and a privilege we should not take lightly. Attending a short-term mission trip should not be the end. After arriving back home we need to do more. Even something as simple as sharing what you learned with others and advocating for an organization or community
can make a long-term impact.

All of these thoughts and views, as well as many other factors, are what drove me to make a commitment to Nhaka Foundation. Nhaka does an incredible job at creating self-sustainable communities while engaging involvement from willing volunteers in the United States in a healthy way. By providing programs that foreigners can support while employing members of local communities in Zimbabwe, Nhaka sets the standard for partnership between countries and portrays perfectly the teamwork needed in missions. Teachers, nurses, construction workers, business owners, and college students from the United States are invited to join in on brainstorming, training, and encouraging local Zimbabwean communities to spur them on towards further growth and development. It was such a powerful experience for me to hear countless stories of school leaders and community volunteers in Zimbabwe thankful for the encouragement they received from American visitors, but I’m sure those Americans learned and received even more in return.

As I learned during my last visit to warm, friendly, welcoming Africa, we all have a universal bond: ubuntu. “I am because we are.” I pray that as we continue to navigate our place in this world and do our best to make positive change, we would remember we’re all on the same team. Let’s not stomp down anyone’s differences but rather keep inspiring, loving, respecting, and learning from each other. I can’t wait to see the impact
we can make as a result, in Zimbabwe and beyond.

Alaina Miller
Missions Officer
Nhaka Foundation

1 https://intentionaltravelers.com/problems-with-mission-trips/
2 .When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself,
Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett

AdministratorDoing good, better!