NPR: Female missionary to Uganda story brings out 'no white savior' syndrome

There’s a curious story on NPR’s site about an American woman who moved to Uganda years ago, set up a Christian charity to help malnourished kids and now is being sued by two Ugandan women who claimed that her negligence led to their children’s deaths.

Renee Bach, who moved back to west-central Virginia after it was clear things were going south in Africa, is fighting back, claiming she had nothing to do with these deaths.

There’s enough about this story that raises a lot of questions about the high rates of death in certain African countries; about foreigners who travel to Africa to do what they can to help and whether they should be held liable for any of these deaths. The story picks up with an anecdote (which I am skipping) about a critically ill child whom Bach (allegedly) nearly killed through lack of medical knowledge.

Ten years ago, Renee Bach left her home in Virginia to set up a charity to help children in Uganda. … Bach was not a doctor. She was a 20-year-old high school graduate with no medical training. And not only was her center not a hospital — at the time it didn't employ a single doctor.

Yet from 2010 through 2015, Bach says, she took in 940 severely malnourished children. And 105 of them died.

Now Bach is being sued in Ugandan civil court.

One in nine kids dying is not a good ratio. But, would these kids have died anyway? Was Bach’s facility the only one that was available?

Uganda has an infant mortality rate of 49 deaths per 1,000 people, but when Bach moved there, it was around 83.4, which is very high.

How could a young American with no medical training even contemplate caring for critically ill children in a foreign country? To understand, it helps to know that the place where Bach set up her operation — the city of Jinja — had already become a hub of American volunteerism by the time she arrived.

A sprawling city of tens of thousands of people on the shores of Lake Victoria, Jinja is surrounded by rural villages of considerable poverty. U.S. missionaries had set up a host of charities there. And soon American teens raised in mostly evangelical churches were streaming in to volunteer at them.

Bach was one of these teens. On her first trip, in 2007, she worked at a missionary-run orphanage — staying on for nine months.

Once back home in Virginia, Bach — now 19 years old — came to a life-changing conclusion: She should move to Jinja full time and set up her own charity.

I googled “missionary groups in Jinja” and sure enough, there’s a bunch.

Funded by money raised through church circles back home, Bach rented a large house in one of Jinja's poorer districts, called Masese, and began testing out options, including starting a program to serve a free hot meal to neighborhood children. Twice a week about 1,000 of them would line up by Bach's house to receive a bowl of food. Bach named her charity "Serving His Children."

According to Bach, word of her feeding program spread through Jinja. In the fall of 2009, she says, she got a call from a staffer at the local children's hospital asking if she could help out with several severely malnourished children.

Bach says the staffer told her that from a medical standpoint, these kids had been stabilized. They just needed to be fed back to health. Could Bach take them in?

So she did, moving from simply serving meals to providing medical care to try to turn some of these obviously dying children around. One of the American volunteers who showed up in 2011 to help out was Jackie Kramlich.

But Kramlich — who had just been certified as a registered nurse in North Dakota — was taken aback to realize just how sick these children were. They weren't just malnourished. They had complicated illnesses.

"Pneumonia, intestinal parasites, tuberculosis, many were in stage 4 HIV," Kramlich says.

Almost every week a child would die.

Also, it seemed to Kramlich that Bach, now 22 years old, was handling a lot of the medical care herself.

The story goes back and forth between Kramlich’s accusations of Bach practicing medicine without a license on these children, with Bach saying that the local hospital was turning these kids away, and that it was either her clinic –- or nothing. Unlike several stories now out there about Bach, NPR actually interviewed her.

"I mean I can tell you time and time again," she says to NPR, "taking kids to hospital after hospital, and them being like, 'meh — we don't really deal with malnutrition. Your best bet is to take them back to your nutrition center.'

"It wasn't ideal. But what do you do in a non-ideal situation?"

The story then jumps to a Ugandan politician who says there was a local hospital willing to handle malnutrition cases, then to a Georgetown University professor who was happy to trash Bach for even going over there.

His quote reflects the bewilderment some feel at the many missionaries (although the story doesn’t imply all Western visitors are there for religious reasons) who set up shop in Africa.

"The American cultural narrative is that these countries are basket cases." And so, says Gostin, Americans assume that whatever their qualifications, they're sure to be of help.

The result, Gostin says, is that everyone from college kids to credentialed doctors routinely parachute into poor countries for medical missions that completely disregard local laws and conditions.

"People think that they're doing good. And they have no idea how much harm they can cause."

And people back home in the U.S. are often complicit, says Gostin. Because when these volunteers write blogs or post videos to share their exploits, "They're celebrated."

Where are they celebrated? In churches. I’m not sure why NPR doesn’t point the finger to where it should go.

The Daily Mail ran a rebuttal from Bach but, other than calling her a missionary in the headline and second paragraph, doesn’t bring up the religion angle at all.

Bach’s lawyer’s organization ran her side of the story as well, calling her detractors “reputational terrorists.” That, according to the site, are people who use social media “to create a false reality without factual evidence.” Well, that’s one way to label the Twitter mobs. And there are folks who are after Bach. Check out #nowhitesaviors on Twitter. Bach is one of their favorite topics.

ABC News did a lengthy story about Bach and the allegations against her, giving each side a good amount of ink. I think it’s a pretty accurate piece although, again, little is said of the religious component other than this quote from Kramlich.

"When I asked what she based her treatments on, she stated she relied heavily on the book, 'Where There is No Doctor,' as well as her 'gut feelings,'" Kramlich stated in her affidavit, adding that Bach also said at times she "felt God would tell her what to do for the child."

I’d be interested in know more about Bach’s faith; what led her over to Africa and what kept her there for so many years. The timeline is also foggy, as the Jinga facility was closed in 2015 by the Ugandan government and two years went by before Bach’s non-profit opened a similar center in another district, this one staffed by plenty of medical personnel. I’m guessing that Bach left Uganda in 2015 because she was getting threats from the locals, according to ABC

I had to go to to find out that Bach is apparently a Baptist, as her family attends a Baptist church in Radford, Va. She’s adopted a Ugandan girl, who she named Selah Grace.

It’s fascinating how this story brings up the larger issue of missions (mainly by white people) to Africa and whether they need to be “decolonized” as No White Saviors claims they must. Is this group saying they didn’t need the schools, the medicine, the hospitals and personnel that missionaries brought with them to much of sub-Saharan Africa over the past two centuries?

There’s a lot of criticism implicit in some of the social media chatter (but not in the actual media coverage) of people who travel overseas to do short-term missions and some of that criticism is warranted. But those much-criticized trips have often been the only thing that has opened Americans’ eyes to what is really going on overseas and that scorned mission trip might be what galvanized the visitor to support ongoing work in that country.

(That’s what happened to me during a three-week trip I made to the Philippines in January 1991 while I was in seminary. I’m not sure how much good I did while visiting various churches there but for the next 20 years, I poured money into several Filipinos, paying for their high school and college educations — and in one case bankrolling a wedding —-because there were needs that otherwise would not have gotten met.)

Renee Bach has gotten herself a good lawyer; there’s no chance she’s ever returning to Uganda any time soon and, if the ABC story is correct, there’s not enough evidence to convict her in Uganda. But the large amount of nasty social media posts about her and missionaries in general shows me there’s a lot of resentment out there about Christian missionary work and that story isn’t going to die any time soon.

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