White God

Decolonizing Development in Zambia and Elsewhere

Esther Mulders is a leading part of Studio Zambia, a not-for-profit organization that tries to empower Zambian youth by creating theatre and radio together. During her time in Zambia she experienced first hand today’s difficulties and challenges of development work.

A little while ago I opened my Facebook account and saw that my Zambian colleague and good friend Geoffrey had changed his profile picture. As beautiful as the picture was, reading the captions that he’d put with it made me cringe very much; so much so, that I wanted to hide and act like I’d never read it. It was too late for that though, and what started off as a small crisis turned out to be a perfect starting point for a critical reflection upon experiences with skin colour and relations of power within my social development work.

Actors practicing a play on domestic violence written by Jessy M. © Fergal Turner

In my experience in development work skin colour is, unfortunately, very influential. Ideas about skin-colour have a long, violent history and in the very beginning of the twentieth century W.E.B. Du Bois predicted that century’s main problem to be the problem of the colour-line.1 He considered it his and his fellows’ duty to strive for a world in which one does not judge a person by the colour of their skin and to move beyond the racial segregation that characterized the post-slavery period.

We hope to bring the community closer together, all in an effort to shed light on rather controversial social issues, such as gender inequality, domestic abuse and abortion.

This ideal is, I think most of you would agree, not yet realized and some will argue that even today the problem of this century is that of the colour-line. The colour-line refers to a line that marks a division between the so-called white and coloured ‘races’; this line inherently creates a hierarchical structure and racial domination in which whites are considered superior and at the top of civilisation, while people of colour are considered inferior and ‘backwards’.

During my time in Zambia, my teams’ and my white skin comes with problematic associations of money and status, and by that, of power and authority – our white bodies get inscribed with meanings and characterizations that go far beyond the present relationship we form with the students and actors we work with.

True Friendship in Mfuwe: Zambians Befriending Muzungu’s

For more than two years now, my friend and professional partner Annoek Snip and I have been working on Studio Zambia, a Dutch not-for-profit organization that makes theatre and radio with local Zambian students in order to give them a creative platform through which they can tell their own story. Through this work we want to give a voice to the youngsters who would otherwise rarely be heard. By letting the students see their own story being told in a professionally produced play and receive a large applause, or hear their own radio show being broadcasted live, we hope to empower the students and help build their self-confidence.

Students listening to the sounds they recorded during the radio making class © Fergal Turner

Also, these creative means are a way to open up discussion on sensitive topics which a community normally either stays silent about or mutes opposing voices in. By opening up the debate, we hope to bring the community closer together and create more intergenerational discussion and understanding, all in an effort to shed light on rather controversial social issues, such as gender inequality, domestic abuse and abortion.

During my time in Mfuwe, Zambia, I’ve come to be close friends with the group of actors that I work with. As hard as it is to maintain this friendship over long distance, social media is a great way to stay in touch. I quite frequently get messages that crack me up, like chain-messages on true friendship and glittery GIFs to wish me a good morning. Last October, however, a social media related event cringed me out: one of my befriended actors, Geoffrey, changed his profile picture on Facebook to a picture of the rehearsal of the performance that he worked on with the Studio Zambia team last summer. He had posted the following:

‘My profile pic shows when I was preparing for the performance that happened in August at Mfuwe Day. We were booked by whites (Studio Zambia Team) it was an awesome day, [I] am the real Actor now fully baked by a White God. Bless her.’
There are multiple reasons reading this message made me cringe. Firstly, the explicit indication of the skin-colour of the members of our team (‘whites’) as the only reference to our group. Secondly, the fact that Geoffrey considers himself a ‘Real Actor’ only after having cooperated with Studio Zambia, while already having had a training in acting with the local group of actors, SEKA, that he was part of. Lastly, and most importantly, referring to the artistic director of our team as a ‘White God’.

‘You are black underneath that skin’

The members of the Studio Zambia team, although coming from different countries, where indeed all ‘whites’. This was something which continuously had been pointed out to us during our time in Mfuwe; when the actors and us would drive through the village in this big, open truck, we would hear ‘muzungu,  muzungu!’ all the time. Muzungu is the term for white person in chinyanja, one of Zambia’s 73 languages. The term implies the belief that one is a very rich white person and is usually used in a rather pejorative way as many locals in Mfuwe view white people as ignorant of Zambian culture and lacking any interest in the people from the village.i

There is no way around the fact that our whiteness was the first way for others to categorise us. Without disregarding the fact the we indeed do have different colours of skin, we did try to get past this focus on skin colour (definitely not, however, in the sense of a sort of ‘color-blindness’, as this tends to disregard the complex reality of people’s lived experiences and in that way can bolster racism).ii Our whiteness seemed to be pointed out as a physical marker of difference; a difference in terms of power and authority, as Geoffrey’s reference to a White God makes clear.

One of the actors performing the 2017 play ‘CONNECT’ © Fergal Turner

Via the exchange of Zambian and European culture through music, dance, stories, language and customs, we tried to learn from each other and stress how there was an exchange going on, in both ways. However, even while our actor friends would sometimes literally say ‘we’re equal, we’re all the same’ or ‘we all have the same blood’, or, jokingly, ‘you are black underneath that [skin]’, there seemed to be no way to get the idea off their minds that we, as Studio Zambia, were higher up in a power-hierarchy.iii

Rewriting the Story

Looking back, I was rather naive to be satisfied with the actors’ talk about equality and sameness. Geoffrey’s Facebook post revealed some of the underlying power structures that were at work within Studio Zambia. The notions of boss and White God are problematic and unwanted in the work we do. Postmodern critics of development work rose up in the 1990’s and started to wonder to what degree development had to be understood as an extension of colonial power. Multiple postmodern thinkers argued that development practices re-established structures of global dominance.

According to Columbian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar development work is about the imposition of Western agendas, which makes international development a means to control. What is often a central part of these critiques is the use of a dominance/resistance binary in which development is a way for powerful countries to dominate, while the less powerful countries can solely ‘act’ by resisting this power.

Students on a little day out in order to get new inspiration for their radio- and theatre making © Fergal Turner

This view of domination and resistance is too simplistic, and multiple actors in development have argued this before, stating that there is a lot more agency and accountability for all actors, thus on every level, within development work than these critics led us to believe.3 Agency has to be understood within a broader global structure and thus can’t be equated with complete freedom.iv Rather, it can be interpreted as a form of ‘constrained agency’ that does not stand apart of the global structures of society, but is at work within these structures and in this way interacts with and relates to them.

The concept of agency that I work with, stems from the work of Browyn Davies, who gives a feminist, poststructuralist understanding of what agency is. A poststructuralist approach to agency stresses the multitude of discourses through which individuals are constructed. Discourses not only co-constitute an individual, they are also the means through which one can perform agency: namely by rewriting the discourse. An important notion here is that of the author; agency is having authorship, a voice, in a discourse one wants to disrupt or change. In this approach, the traditional male/female dualism has to be abandoned: everybody can be an author and challenge current discourses. In this feminist analysis of agency, women can discover their authorship; a woman can be ‘a protagonist inside the storylines she is living out’.4

Open Endings

In Studio Zambia’s work this is applicable not only to girls and women, but a whole group of marginalised people: Zambian youth. Davies’ concept of agency fits nicely with Saba Mahmood’s project to uncouple the notion of agency and the ‘progressive goal of emancipatory politics’.5 Davies’ concept allows authors to rewrite any story in any way: the end of their story is not yet revealed.

The essence of Studio Zambia’s work is to give a creative platform to those who are normally ignored or overseen on social relevant but sensitive topics.

The metaphor of a story alludes to the structures within which one can have agency; although one may not have the ability to start or choose a certain story, when part of this story (i.e. social structures) one has agency to act and challenge (pre-set) storylines. Davies, just as Mahmood, moves away from a feministic prescriptive project. As is the case for Davies’ open-ended rewriting of a discourse, Mahmood also sees the meaning and sense of social change as something that always emerges and becomes: it cannot be fixed a priori.

The essence of Studio Zambia’s work is to give a creative platform to those who are normally ignored or overseen on social relevant but sensitive topics. By letting the students express themselves and share their stories and opinions, in a completely uncensored way, we try to give them a voice. Our project is thus, in no sense, prescriptive. Our students are the authors, literally and figuratively. This kind of development work is quite in line with how Robert Chambers, who has been a leading figure in the use of participatory methods, perceives sustainable development should be.

Decolonizing Development: From Power Over to Power With

Studio Zambia works with groups of students and one group of actors; the relationship we have with our students is not the same as our relationship with the actors. Where we are supporters and facilitators for our students, we continue to be perceived as a ‘boss’ by our actors, by which the power, and thus agency (in the form of authorship), stays in our hands and not theirs, where we want it to be.

Two SEKA actors performing a play about a young flower that has to defend herself against an intrusive bee © Fergal Turner

In this sense, the students participate in a completely different way than the actors do, whose participation is much more limited. This power over, which we definitely want to get rid of, and never wanted to or aimed to have in the first place, can be transformed and used as it is in the relationship with the students into power with or power to empower, although it will take some time.

According to Chambers, ‘influence requires power with through collegiality, mutual trust, joint learning and collaboration. Aid is about investing in relationships’.6 Although I agree with him, this might not be enough to create power with, as my time in Zambia has proven.

History is not merely something of the past.

What perhaps is missing on Chambers’ list is patience; more time is needed for the actors and Studio Zambia to develop a relation in which not a single person gets attributed any godly characterizations but where instead every individual finds their strengths and confidence within themselves. In addition, to work towards a relationship of power with, Foucauldian theory could be a great starting point to examine the relation between discourses, power and subjectivity, as both the global ‘development discourse’ as the actor’s local discourse and constructions of ‘whites’ reify certain deep grained, but certainly imagined, truths about white authority.

Pedagogy for the Non-Oppressed

The way forward is still undecided, a new learning adventure. Since the start of this year, I have an extra role within Studio Zambia; I’m responsible for a critical reflection upon all neo-colonizing tendencies that unwillingly might slip in our work. It is clear that in our relationship with the actors, we’ll aim to work towards a role in which we will be, and more importantly, will be perceived as supportive and facilitating – a relationship which is not controlled by the colour-line, although it will be difficult to get the picture of us as their white bosses out of their heads. It will be a long process in which a whole history of violence and inequality will come up, and be present.

Students working on their stories during the play-writing class © Fergal Turner

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American writer and a prominent figure in the fight against racism in the United States; he reminds us that history is not merely something of the past; ‘on the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do’.7

This should, however, not discourage one to challenge and change the status quo. Being scrutinizingly reflexive is necessary on our way forward. Self-critical awareness is an important part of the ‘pedagogy for the non-oppressed’8, in order for us to play our part in an effort to challenge dominant power structures and work towards a decolonization of development work.

  1. Du Bois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk. (New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1994), p. 9.
  2. Tran, N. and Paterson, S., ‘“American” as a Proxy for “Whiteness”: Racial Color-Blindness in Everyday Life’, in: Women & Therapy (2015), 38(3-4), p. 341-355.
  3. Mosse, D., Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice, (London: Pluto Press, 2005).
  4. Davies, B., ‘The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis’, in: Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, (1991), 30, p. 52.
  5. Mahmood, S., ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival’, in: Cultural Anthropology, (2001), 16(2), p. 208.
  6. Chambers, R., Ideas for development: reflecting forwards, IDS Working Paper 238,   (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 2004), p. 29.
  7. Baldwin, J., ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, in: Ebony, (1965), 20 (10), p. 47.
  8. Chambers, (2004), p. 13.
Esther Mulders
Esther Mulders is studying for her MA in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex, UK. As a creative therapist and co-director of Studio Playwriting, she is currently specializing in the use of creative means to make social change happen.