13 Jun 2019
The following blog has been adapted by FBB staff from Wendy Webber's 6/7/19 speech at the American Humanists Association Annual Conference.
Decolonizing service is a huge topic. I can only scratch the surface today, so I’m going to focus on what "decolonizing service" means in the context of Ghana, because of Foundation Beyond Belief’s work there with the Humanist Service Corps program.
Ghana is an African nation with a black majority. I am a white citizen of the United States. These two identities give me an incredible amount of privilege in both the everyday world and in non-profit work. I don’t for a second think I can speak for Ghanaians or for their experience. But with my position, I can speak against the perpetuation of colonial legacies. I can speak against participating in modern colonial practices. And I can speak for the dismantling of colonial and racist systems and mentalities, especially as it relates to service.
I can also speak as to why humanists—especially white humanists—should engage the world with decolonizing intentions. We often talk about the humanist values of contributing to a more just and equal world. For that reason, humanists should be at the forefront of understanding the the factors that contribute to inequality and oppression. Otherwise, our work will only address the symptoms of inequality, not its root causes.
Today, I am going to discuss the ways that FBB as a humanist service organization is challenging savior mentalities, both in terms of how we do our work and how we talk about it.
First, some history for context.
For a lot of people, the word “colonialism” is a word describing history. Popularly, it's connected to tourist destinations like Colonial Williamsburg and its whitewashed colonial past (more so than its white supremacist mark in world history). In my high school history classes, I learned about the “Colonial Period,” which was 1492 until the US Revolutionary War ending in 1783— the period when the future United States was under colonial rule. This framing completely rewrites history. It describes the European settlers as the colonized people rather than the natives whose land they took. It ignores how the settlers participated in the colonization of Africa through the slave trade.
I learned that the end of WWII in the 1940s marked the beginning of the end of British colonial rule. That time until the 1960s was the height of the “Decolonization Period.” That was it. Colonialism was over. That’s what I learned in school, but is colonialism truly over?
No. The effects of the “Colonial Period” are still felt daily in the lives of people all around the world. Many of the world’s poorest countries today were once colonized by European countries who stripped those lands of resources, making themselves rich while ensuring the colonized people remained without the power bought by money. Many border conflicts being fought today are a result of colonial borders being drawn without any regard for pre-existing ethnic and political structures, favoring some groups over others during colonial rule. Many groups whose lands, rights, and resources were taken remain marginalized in modern societies.
Colonialism still exists; we just have different names for it. In the context of the historical period described above, "decolonizing” means no longer having direct governmental control over conquered nations. Colonial power is still very much present in today’s world. It exists in the form of structural legacies, ongoing economic exploitation, and mindsets such as the "savior" mentality in service.
A very abbreviated and incredibly incomplete colonial history of Ghana:
The Ashanti people—one of the most influential groups in sub-saharan Africa prior to colonialism—had control of much of what is now southern Ghana when the first European country—Portugal—arrived in 1471. The Portuguese built Elmina Castle, which was later used to hold slaves before they were shipped to the Americas. Other Europeans followed suit including the Dutch and British, who set up robust slave trading industries in the region. Over time, the British consolidated their control of the region by taking over other European interests and continuing to invade Ashanti and other indigenous groups’ land. In 1867, they established the British Gold Coast, named for extensive gold deposits in the area.
There were four Ashanti-Anglo wars through the 1800s, but by the end of the century the British had incorporated all of the Gold Coast and its disparate kingdoms and tribes—including northern peoples like the Mole-Dagombas—into a single colony with Ghana’s current borders. During the decolonization period following WWII, these colonized people started restoring autonomy with many veterans leading the charge. They ended colonization in 1895, taking the name Ghana.
Today, the contrast between the north and south in Ghana is remarkable because of the specific colonial history in both regions. When one learns about the British occupation in Ghana, one hears about the schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and industries built by the British that remain important to the Ghanaian economy, like mining and cocoa. These lessons almost always omit the fact that this activity happened almost exclusively in the south. The north—which lacked natural resources the British wanted to exploit—was considered largely a source of laborers, taxes, and not much else, so they did not build infrastructure in the north like they did in the south.
A good example of how these two regions differ today due to the colonial government's treatment is found in education. The first school in the north wasn’t established until 1908— about 100 years after the start of school systems in the south. (A few informal schools were set up by missionaries before that, but these were inconsistent and restricted by colonial policies, not having much of a historical impact.) The schools established in the north focused on basic education and trade skills as required by colonial education policy. In the 1920s, much of the money allocated for education in the north was “redirected” (read: stolen) by colonists to build an elite boarding school for students in the south. While that elite school went on to educate many African leaders—including the first president of independent Ghana—the north's first locally-educated high school student's didn't graduate until the 1960s after locals retook independence. To this day, communities in the north are still working to establish secondary schools.
In the south, the British did not allow substantial local participation in colonial economic or academic systems. In the north, those systems were simply not built.
What does all this have to do with service? Almost all conversations about service in the developing world—especially when it’s white people talking—don’t include the colonial history that created the need for the service. This allows white and western people to maintain the colonial mindset of saviors saving the helpless, validating their (our) sense of privilege and underwriting the colonial system.
If we are not confronting the legacy and mindset of colonialism in every aspect of our work, what are we doing? Most likely making things worse. At the very least, we are maintaining the status quo. To truly make the world a more just and equal place, we must confront the legacy and mindset of colonialism especially when talking about service.
What does it mean to “decolonize” service? In what ways does service work perpetuate colonial legacies and mindsets? To answer that, I am going to discuss how FBB is approaching our work in Ghana.
For international service to actually challenge colonial legacies and "white savior" mentalities, we have to upend the way it has been done for decades. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we cannot think about this work as helping helpless people. Colonialists have claimed for centuries that only white Europeans have the answers. This idea survived through the decolonizing era—it just shifted to other arenas like business and international service.
One of the most apparent indicators of this legacy is how FBB's presence in Ghana has been received. Ghana has a long history of international volunteers looking for a superficial, feel-good opportunity to “help the poor Africans." (Online dating is rife with the cliche of white people using a profile picture of themselves with black African children.)
Local organizations go along with this because it is prestigious for Ghanaian orgs to have western partners and host white volunteers. This itself is a colonial legacy. Organizations also believe that a message delivered from a white person will be received more readily than when delivered by a black person. Studies have documented these 21st century beliefs held by international volunteers and their local hosts in Africa, and I have witnessed them in action firsthand.
Ghanaian orgs leverage this social capital to achieve their goals, but the systemic causes of oppression go untouched. So what is ultimately being accomplished?
FBB is committed to relying on local expertise and shunning the spotlight in favor of centering the work of our local partners. We will never put an international volunteer in a job a local can do. We are not the face of the work in Ghana; the local organizations we support are. We support what they do. Why should we take credit?
Our current and potential partners assume we will be like other NGOs, and we have found that they are very confused when we don’t want to take credit for the work.
Once, one of our partners took the initiative of printing some record-keeping books with our name and logo on the front, and were legitimately confused when we asked the books be reprinted without it. This was a learning opportunity for us. We had failed to express that we didn't want our name and logo on the materials and why. This has since informed how we’ve expressed our commitment to centering our partners' work.
Why should a partner trust us about our commitment to centering their work when all their experience is to the contrary? They shouldn’t. At least not at the start. If we want to support them and their work, we need to put in the time and energy to spotlight them, their work, and their solutions. We need to create partnerships where we are accountable to our partners, not where they are reliant on us. We create projects that are sustainable and designed for FBB to become utterly redundant. This is non-negotiable. We need to prove that we are different through our actions, words, time, and eventual departure.
At FBB we are committed to confronting the legacy and mindset of colonialism in the work we do. We are committed to centering local expertise and solutions. We are committed to seeking out, learning from, and standing with the people already doing the work of resistance in their communities. We are committed to fundamental inclusivity and cultural responsibility. We are committed to accountability to our local partners. We are committed to sustainable interventions that make us redundant.
We have more work to do to figure out how these commitments are realized in the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves year to year, but we are committed to making every decision regarding our work in Ghana and elsewhere within the framework of decolonizing service.
By Wendy Webber, FBB Programs Manager
For a long time this trip was just a dream. Although multiple people at Foundation Beyond Belief had put a lot of hours into its planning, in the end it seemed impossible. International laws and foreign immigration systems made it extremely difficult to get to Ecuador.
It didn’t matter that Ecuador is visa-free for 90 days for Ghanaians; with no direct flights from Africa to South America, my options were to go through Europe or the United States. Most western countries require transit visas from African travellers just to pass through their airports, and the process of acquiring one is the same as applying for a visitor or work visa. I would even have to go in for an interview about why I wanted the visa at an embassy in Accra (Ghana’s capital). The chances of getting a visa are really low in light of what’s happening with immigration laws around the world. I had to find the cheapest and easiest route to Ecuador from Ghana, and in the end that trip looked like 49 hours of travel through Istanbul, Columbia, Panama, and Quito with potentially 19 hours of waiting at the Istanbul Airport.
I had to keep my mind on the end result instead of the process. I remembered the purpose of my trip: a knowledge exchange with Ecuadorian non-profits which do work similar to that of the Humanist Service Corps Program (HSC) in Ghana. The goal was to come back to Ghana with fresh ideas on how to better improve HSC’s management and partnerships with locally-run non profits in Northern and Central Ghana by adopting some of the skills used by the Ecuadorian NGOs. I was also hoping to share some of our methods and build long-lasting relationships with these NGOs to help expand our reach outside Ghana. The dream was big, scary and exciting and we made it happen somehow despite all the obstacles that popped up along the way.
After a week with IDEA Dignidad, next was a three hour bus ride from Quito to the mountains of Otavalo to meet with Tandana Foundation. Getting a bus from the terminal was one of the hardest things I had to navigate as I didn’t speak Spanish. After my first bus left without me, a kind fellow traveller who spoke a little English finally helped me get on the right bus. The drive through the mountains to Otavalo was absolutely beautiful.
Unlike the other two organizations I met in Ecuador, Tandana was already an FBB beneficiary. They work within the Indigenous communities of Otavalo Canton. Tandana’s mission is to support the achievement of community goals and address global inequalities through caring intercultural relationships that embody mutual respect and responsibility.
I was lucky to catch the founding Director of the Foundation Anna Taft, on her last day of a visit from the United States, where she lives. Anna’s journey with the communities for which Tandana now works started in 1998 when she spent four months teaching English to local elementary school students. She built relationships within these communities and kept in touch with her friends there. In 2004, she founded Tandana Foundation. Anna told me about the kindness of the people who embraced her and welcomed her into their communities in 1998, and how that motivated her to want to give back.
One of Tandana’s many important programs is their Health Care program. Twice a year, Anna and her team organize a group of medical professionals from the United States and Ecuador for weeks of work inside the communities. The Indigenous people who live there don’t always have easy access to adequate healthcare; the practice of traditional medicine is more recognised in these communities. Each year, the medical teams come loaded with equipment and medicine for those that need it. They do tests, give advice, provide medicine, and make referrals. The program is very successful and the people who depend on it look forward to it every year.
However, only half the work is done after the medical professionals leave. A huge amount of people who go through the program need more care afterwards. Some of them need surgeries and others need further tests at big hospitals that have the necessary equipment. But getting to the big cities for these referrals is not easy for the people who live in these communities. The journey is expensive and hard when a person doesn’t know anyone there. Sometimes they have to stay for more than one day in the city. The tests and surgeries are expensive. Tandana’s Patient Follow Up Program ensures that people get the aftercare they need.
When I met Virginia Sanchez, I was in awe of her hard work and dedication. Virginia wanted to do something that would benefit her community after she retired from her previous job, when she heard about Tandana. Today, she goes to every doctor appointment, talks to government officials and other organizations to raise funds to cover expensive surgeries, advises and explains the healthcare system to the people with which she works. She is their guide through it all. When we met, Virginia had over a hundred patient referrals in a folder that she was working on. All of the names in that folder were people who needed some form of medical care, and she was going to get it for them. Virginia is always on the move and always doing something to help. Hundreds of people depend on Tandana’s Health Care Program every year and Virginia plays a huge part in its success.
During HSC’s first year in Northern Ghana, we achieved huge successes with our Medical Records project, through which we were able to provide records for the entire community of Kukuo. Learning about Tandana’s healthcare project showed me how much more we can achieve. Maybe in the future we can create a similar project to bring in medical professionals to help those who don’t have easy access to or can’t afford medical care. Maybe we can also get our own Virginia to make sure that the project is sustainable and that those who depend on it get the full medical care that they need.
Tandana also runs a Scholarship Program for high school and university students from the Indigenous communities who are brilliant but cannot afford some or all the expenses involved. The program’s very first beneficiary, Margarita Fuerez, has worked for the organization since completing university. She has built a home for her family, including her older sister who is also in university. In the Indigenous communities, a lot of emphasis is placed in a woman’s ability to bear children and be a wife. Margarita’s success story shows parents and other girls in the community that they can achieve a lot of other things.
Tandana hosts 15 volunteer groups each year through their volunteer program. The groups include people of different ages that stay with host families and are involved in Gardening, Education and Infrastructure projects. The volunteer groups help fund some of their other projects. It was really important for me to learn everything I could about the volunteer program because HSC has been planning since last year to start a similar project that can help raise funds to cover program costs and other expenses.
Nicole Melendez and Charlotte Ford are program coordinators who run the volunteer program. Their job is to make sure that each group has a culturally responsible, safe, and fulfilling experience while working in the community. They help the volunteers adjust to their new environment, and work with host families and the local community to figure out ways the volunteers can help. As HSC is a humanist program, my biggest concern with planning a “learning trip” (as we are calling it) has always been making sure we do it in an ethically responsible way. Through my conversations with Nicole and Charlotte, I learned some important tools and methods to achieve this purpose and others that make their volunteer groups successful. I am even more excited and geared up now for HSC to start planning yearly learning trips.
My final meeting was with the manager of Tandana, Diego Soto. Diego— who comes from Ecuador— manages all of Tandana’s programs. He and I talked about our experiences as managers of American-founded programs/foundations and how we manage the job of being the middlemen between two cultures.
I met so many people during my visit to Tandana who are truly dedicated to the work they do and I am really grateful for how everyone went out of their way to make time to talk and give help when I needed it. I was inspired so many times to do more and I learned a lot of things that will help HSC in our development and growth as a program.
Tandana Foundation is a beneficiary of Foundation Beyond Belief's Humanist Grants program. Support future Humanist Grants by donating at FBBgive.org.
Learn more about Tandana Foundation at tandanafoundation.org.
By Yvonne Selase Nyahe, Coordinator of the Humanist Service Corps program in Ghana