Nigeria, Ebola and the myth of white saviours

Contrary to the dominant Ebola foreign intervention narrative, Africans are not waiting to be rescued.

An employee of a factory tries on special Ebola gear in Berkel en Rodenrijs, The Netherlands [EPA]

In a 2012 article published by The Atlantic, Nigerian writer Teju Cole exposed the white saviour industrial complex for what it is: a pathology of white privilege.

According to Cole, white saviours fundamentally believe they are indispensable to the very existence of those on the receiving end of their “interventions”. Like some potted plants, they tend to bloom in “exotic” environments far removed from their natural habitats.

At the height of Ebola, the myth of the white saviour has resurfaced again and again, framing Africans as infantile objects of external interventions. The white saviour complex has placed a premium on foreign expertise, while negating domestic capabilities.  

We’ve been assailed with images of mostly white foreigners flown out of the Ebola “hot zone” with the promise of expert care abroad. As spokespersons for the thousands “left behind”, they have been catapulted into the heady limelight of overnight stardom.

We’ve been bombarded with a cacophony of non-African “expert” opinions about how to “save” Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone from Ebola. Yet, Ugandan and Congolese specialists, who contained the virus repeatedly in their own countries, have been sidelined in the mainstream international press.

Deliberately silenced

Indian writer and human rights activist Arundathi Roy once said, “there is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard”. Indeed, narratives about African ingenuity, African agency, and African heroism in the age of Ebola have been preferably unheard. As an African proverb aptly puts it: “Until the lion learns to write, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”

Ebola outbreak: Recap of events

Most recently Nigeria positioned itself as a lion that completely unsettled the narrative around Ebola and the white saviour complex. As the regional West African hegemon and Africa’s fastest growing economy, Nigeria contained Ebola in three months without foreign intervention.

While the US has been scrambling to address the few cases of Ebola on its shores with a series of policy missteps, Nigeria showed that it could be done by an African country on its own terms.

With 31 percent of overall healthcare spending accounted for by the federal government in 2012 alone, Nigeria used infrastructure and systems already in place to fight polio, to contain Ebola. Institutions such as the Nigerian Center for Disease Control, the Nigerian Field Epidemiology Training Program, and the Lagos State Ministry of Health responded quickly by quarantining and treating suspected Ebola patients, tracing the contacts of those infected, and launching a massive public awareness campaign about how to avoid further transmission of the virus. With more doctors than Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone combined, Nigeria also galvanised the support of healthcare workers who had previously been on strike.

Beyond Nigeria’s technical expertise and rapid response, equally important is the country’s unique brand of superiority that fundamentally challenges the white saviour complex.

Quite naturally, detractors attempted to undermine Nigeria’s success. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the country Ebola-free a few weeks ago, the fanfare around this feat was short-lived. I even sensed some unspoken incredulity. Folks were quick to react that Nigeria wasn’t completely out of the woods yet, that there could be a resurgence of Ebola.

Local, not international efforts

Some narratives erroneously attributed Nigeria’s success to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the WHO, and the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Yet, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie responded with a sharp smack-down of this “lie”. She openly criticised The Washington Post and The New York Times for deliberating concealing the fact that local, not international efforts, had contained Ebola. For instance, it was a Nigerian woman, Dr Ameyo Adadevoh, who insisted on isolating the country’s first Ebola patient before eventually succumbing to the virus herself.

Less incredulous individuals praised Nigeria, wondering why they weren’t being consulted about the do’s and don’ts of Ebola containment. Consultations with Nigerians were largely shirked to the side because they invalidated the white saviour complex.

One thing Ebola has exposed about the white saviour complex is that it is voracious and unapologetic. It simplifies complexity, appropriates ideas without crediting the source, upstages local efforts that preceded it, thrives on “I” statements, and soaks up media attention.

In her celebrated essay, “Can the subaltern speak?”, Gayatri Spivak rails against the problematic narrative of “white men saving brown women from brown men”. In actuality, no one has the capacity to “save” another human being. Believing that one can is the greatest form of self-delusion and narcissism.

Contrary to the dominant Ebola foreign intervention narrative, Liberians, Guineans, and Sierra Leoneans are not waiting around idle, eager to be rescued by white saviours. While we welcome genuine collaboration, we remain our own heroes and heroines. The fact that more than 200 local healthcare workers died from Ebola is a testament to that heroism. They risked their lives long before international actors woke up from their slumber.

No externally driven intervention narrative can change that fact, as Nigeria has proven. So, thank you, Nigeria, for completely exposing the white saviour complex for being a figment of western imagination. Like other psychological disorders, it must be treated with regular doses of reality, now and after Ebola.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist, and author based at SOAS, University of London.