As an African who grew up in Europe, the kind of poverty I am aware of is mainly the Western kind: council flats, homelessness, alcohol abuse and drug problems.
I was curious to find out how I would react – so I went along to the UK’s second-most populous city, Birmingham, where a truck was parked in front of the City Council, wrapped in a banner saying: “Experience another world, without leaving yours”.
It had an image of an African mother with two children sitting in front of what looked like a slum shack.
Jane Sheikh, an employee of Compassion UK, the child-sponsorship charity, greeted me and explained the experience had two exhibits:
- One door opened up on the life of Shamim, a young girl from Uganda who contracts malaria and loses her hearing
- The second on Sameson, a boy who grows up in poverty in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, “a very hard city to live in”.
Good-hearted sponsors then come to the aid of both. Shamim, deaf and unwanted by her mother, is helped to go to school and Sameson now runs his own woodwork workshop.
The exhibits are experienced through an iPhone and headphones. Child actors narrate the stories as you walk through small rooms depicting their homes, classrooms and even a hospital clinic.
The stories were touching. I found myself especially moved by Shamim’s: being a deaf child anywhere is difficult but especially hard in a small village.
I was glad she was able to continue with her education and especially pleased she went on to found her own organisation helping other deaf children.
Both stories end with short videos showing present-day Shamim and Sameson, talking about how the charity changed their lives.
A text then appears on the iPhone screen: “Please find your Shamim/Sameson right now.”
Upon leaving the final room in the exhibit, you enter a small room full of catalogues of poor children looking for a sponsor.
It had the feel of a makeshift museum gift shop. Instead of buying coffee-table books and overpriced T-shirts, you could spend time flicking through the profiles of children in Africa, South America and Asia. Each child has had a rough life and a tragic story to tell.
It made me wonder about our obsession with sad stories and an almost unspoken collective belief that the recipient of help must be in a truly dire situation in order to be worthy of our assistance.
‘Superiority cloaked as altruism’
For Ciku Kimeria, a Kenyan author who has 10 years’ experience working in development, they have become African caricatures.
“The pregnant teen, the poor child, the suffering mother… White people get to gaze, it’s for their consumption,” she told me.
“Is that how you build compassion, by objectifying people?”
Her fear is that this kind of charity work is “superiority cloaked as altruism”.
People with good intentions can sometimes cause more harm than good, she says, pointing out that the guardians of children whose images are used in aid campaigns tend to sign waivers without understanding the child’s story will be “constantly told and remixed”, often for years.
“In addition to the individuals whose stories have been told, it becomes a larger narrative – it easily becomes the story of all Africans.”
But Caroline Cameron, head of the Compassion Experience, defends the project, saying it is not about indulging in misery or helping perpetuate negative stereotypes of Africa.
“For us the most important thing is, this is about stories of hope and opportunity of real children, both Shamim and Sameson are real-life people and they developed the story with us. We do it with them in the communities it [poverty] is affecting.”
Mr Sheikh, who has joined us over expensive cups of coffee, agrees: “It’s not to focus on one region or stereotype but it’s about sharing their stories.”
They explain that they challenge people’s attitudes, and that day they had told a visitor that Sameson’s story was not representative of the whole of Ethiopia, which in the West has been associated with decades of drought.
“I said: ‘You must remember, like any country there are affluent areas and there are not so affluent areas,'” Ms Cameron says.
“Both Shamim and Sameson are back in their communities, they haven’t remained poor… that in itself tells you not everyone [in Africa] is poor,” she adds.
The Compassion Experience was launched in the UK two years ago and, according to the charity, the truck has visited 31 churches and city centres across the UK. More than 19,000 people have visited the exhibit, including nearly 4,000 school children.
Today more than two million children worldwide are sponsored by the charity.
Mr Sheikh then says he was one of them: “I grew up in a slum community in India. For roughly 10,000 people there were two toilets for the entire community and nobody ever went to school because there were no schools.”
He says finding a sponsor changed his life and he found that his circumstances did not limit his opportunities.
“The help that we are talking about is the price of a family take-away,” says Ms Cameron.
But for Ms Kimeria, what is really needed is trade not aid.
“Investing in Africa will be what gets Africa to the next level, although that seems to make people uncomfortable. For some reason Westerners will build a school but won’t invest in an African company.”
It is a complicated debate – and one that will not be solved in one afternoon in Birmingham, which was an illuminating if uncomfortable experience, although perhaps not for the reasons intended.