Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Africa doesn't need our 'pity'

By John D. Sutter, CNN
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Women in Kenya say they're better at netball than men.
Women in Kenya say they're better at netball than men.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Sutter talks with the woman behind a movement called "Stop the Pity"
  • The group unveiled a new video at SXSW that aims to shift attitudes about Africa
  • Sutter: The group focuses on empowerment as a form of aid, not guilt

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social justice columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- "Men don't play netball."

"Men just jump like goats."

"They can't handle it."

"They are too serious."

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

"They can't take abuse from the women."

"They comPLAIN!"

That's how a group of Kenyan women describe the game of netball in a new (pre-viral?) video from a nonprofit group called Mama Hope, which seems bent on re-framing the way the Western world thinks of Africa, particularly African women.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The group's campaign, called "Stop the Pity," was launched here at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. The goal, as the title makes clear, is to help women around the world by empowering them, celebrating their successes, instead of feeling bad about the vast inequalities that do exist.

As anyone who's spent time in Africa will tell you, it's a diverse continent that's home to both immense joy and incredible sorrow.

There's no shortage of tearjerker statistics.

The World Bank, for example, says nearly half of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $1.25 per day. Thirty-seven percent of people who lack access to clean water live in that region. It's also a hotbed for malaria, etc. Intense inequalities do exist.

But even numbers tell another side to the story, as The Economist points out in a recent article titled "Aspiring Africa."

"Consumer spending will almost double in the next ten years; the number of countries with average incomes above $1,000 per person a year will grow from less than half of Africa's 55 states to three-quarters," the magazine said.

And, most important: "Africans deserve the credit. Western aid agencies, Chinese mining companies and U.N. peacekeepers have done their bit, but the continent's main saviors are its own people."

All the more reason to celebrate Mama Hope's efforts to focus on joy instead of suffering.

The group's videos build on a rising chorus of voices calling for change in the way people from richer countries see those who live in poorer places.

A blog called Aid Thoughts has been posting examples of what it considers "poverty porn," or ads, videos and news stories that generally show Africans as one-dimensional victims.

Others use the term "badvocacy," which the blog Texas in Africa defines as "a good catch-all term to describe advocacy that begins with great intentions to help those who are suffering, but that at best accomplishes nothing or at worst actually makes the problem even more difficult to solve."

Laura Seay, that blog's author and an assistant political science professor at Morehouse College, writes that advocates sometimes oversimplify issues or make them too sexy with the help of celebrities and flashy campaigns.

The recently released video focuses on netball, a game it describes as a cross between basketball and ultimate Frisbee, because that's what the women wanted to discuss.

"We asked the women what they wanted to talk about," Nyla Rodgers, founder and "chief visionary" of Mama Hope told me. "They really wanted America to know how much they love netball."

And it doesn't hurt that it's tracked with Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)."

Even if the Mama Hope video is highly produced, it's still possible to appreciate the fact that it's trying to promote empowerment and not pity or guilt.

And the netball video is just one of several from the group.

Another features a boy reciting the plot of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. (YouTube views: 640,000). One shows men making fun of how Africans tend to show up in Hollywood movies toting guns and wearing scowls. (Views: 1.05 million)

They're humorous and light. Designed to be shared.

Rodgers says that's what's needed in 2013.

"We have to have partnership instead of pity," she said of the way the West interacts with Africa. "Partnership doesn't include pity. It includes seeing people as equals and being able to work with them on an equal partnership."

We have to have partnership instead of pity.
Nyla Rogers

It's an issue that's personal for Rodgers.

It started with her "brother from another mother."

That's how she explains her relationship with Bernard, a young boy in Kenya whose photo sat on her mother's mantle next to Rodgers'.

"I was always hearing about his grades and who his friends were," she said.

Her mom, a dance teacher and writer, had adopted the boy in a way, sponsoring community development projects in his village, Rodgers said. After her mother died from cancer in 2006, Rodgers decided to visit the village and to meet Bernard.

She told him, "I'm going to take care of you now."

On the surface, if that doesn't sound like a "white savior" moment, I don't know what does. It conjures up images of condescending white missionaries trekking to Africa to dispense water, food and religion -- all to show their superiority.

But Rodgers doesn't see it that way.

"If anything, I was in the deep depths of despair," because of her mother's death, "and I saw how connected life is," she said. "And that really saved me."

Mama Hope works with communities to start orphanages, improve sanitation and reduce poverty. But they only do so, she said, after living in the community for long enough that they can listen to people there about what problems could be solved with the help of outside funds or expertise.

The group currently has 32 projects in four countries, she said, and an annual budget of about $500,000.

And the best way to promote that work may be to stop pitying the people she's trying to help. They're friends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, netballers.

But not victims.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT