Uganda

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

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 Balch, 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.

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Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

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Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully-minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result of which is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

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Hey New York Times editors: Why ignore hellish details in story of Ugandan marytrs?

Hey New York Times editors: Why ignore hellish details in story of Ugandan marytrs?

The questions for this morning are rather simple: (a) Who were the Ugandan martyrs, (b) why were they killed and (c) why are they so symbolic for millions of Christians in the growing churches of Africa?

These questions are especially important, since Pope Francis has just visited Uganda to mark the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Catholics among the 45 believers who -- with Anglican martyrs, as well -- were tortured, beheaded, hacked to death and burned on the orders of King Mwanga II in the late 1800s.

Why did this happen? What does it have to do with the rapid growth, and the beliefs, of the church in modern Africa?

Quite a few mainstream news organizations -- The New York Times in particular -- were vague, silent or inaccurate when dealing with the answers to some of these questions. But let's start with a report from CBS and the Associated Press that included the essential details.

NAMUGONGO, Uganda -- Pope Francis on Saturday honored the Ugandan Christians who were burned alive rather than renounce their faith a century ago, urging today's Catholics to follow in their missionary zeal and spread the faith at home and abroad.
A somber Francis prayed at shrines dedicated to the 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic martyrs who were killed between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of a local king trying to thwart the influence of Christianity in his central Ugandan kingdom. According to historians, the Christians were also killed because they refused the king's sexual advances, citing the church's opposition to homosexuality.

This report also touched on the fact that the sexual politics of Africa remain strikingly complex and even tragic, as believers here wrestle with a web of colonial-era and tribal beliefs and customs, with the constant pressure of Islam on many borders.

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Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?

The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality. For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality. The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

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