Ben Goes to Africa Part III: White Saviours and Black Magic

I normally eat lunch in the maths office, which is a considerably louder place than the English office. From politics to blowjobs, no topic is sacred for the conversational steamroller of the maths department. Within minutes of meeting the maths teachers, they were already trying to set me up with one of their colleagues, cheerfully explaining that in South Africa it’s no problem to have multiple relationships. (There is some valid evidence for this: South Africa’s president has been married six times). They’ve also introduced me to a plethora of black magic practises which apparently occur regularly in the area. These include “sending lightning” to a person in order to harm them, and “locking” a woman in order to ensure she doesn’t cheat on you. I’m not going to go into any more detail, because some of my family members read this blog.

It was the maths teachers who first told me about the girl who was possessed by the spirits of her ancestors during class. This sounds pretty extraordinary, but due to the eclectic nature of conversation in the maths department, I didn’t think too much of it at the time. The teacher who told me witnessed this first hand: or at least, he witnessed the start of it. After the girl (who will remain unnamed for obvious reasons) started shaking and speaking with the voices of her ancestors, he got the fuck out of there faster than Boris after Brexit.

It was only a bit later that I put two and two together and realised what he was describing sounded quite like an epileptic fit. But just like all other instances of maths in my life, I didn’t pursue it any further.

A few days later, I hadn’t given the girl or the ancestors any more thought. It was only when I was prompted by my fellow teacher Amalia (or possibly Amelia — I haven’t got a clue which is which) that I realised it would be worth trying to find her.

Actually finding her proved more difficult than I’d expected — picture the sort of training montage you normally see in action films, except instead of a beefy guy working out, it’s a skinny guy wondering into random classrooms and asking if this is 10D. After much deviation and incorrect directions, I managed to find the girl. At this point, I wanted to ascertain whether or not she’d experienced a fit, whether she’d experienced them before, and recommend going to see a doctor. She told me that not only had she experienced a fit before, she usually experienced one every single day. As she spoke, I noticed gashes all over her tongue, carved by her own teeth as her jaw clenched uncontrollably during the convulsions. When I asked whether she’d been to the doctors about it, she said yes — and they’d told her to drink more water.

When you hear something like this, you look for someone or something to blame. I was furious that anyone who called themselves a doctor could hear these symptoms and prescribe their patient water. I was furious at her teachers and her parents for allowing this to continue. And most of all, I was furious at the baseless superstitions which had prevented anyone from recognising that she had an extremely hazardous medical condition.

All of this was unjustified. Living as I have in my occidental bubble, I’m used to the triumph of science over superstition, I’m used to most illnesses being fleeting, and I’m used to parents doing everything they can to ensure the health of their children. But that’s only because they’re able to. The girl’s parents, teachers and doctors have likely lived in destitute areas for the duration of their lives, never exposed to commonplace conditions such as epilepsy. Their unquestioning belief that someone’s ancestors can inhabit their body isn’t so different from my unquestioning belief that epilepsy is a genuine condition. Sure, my beliefs are based on scientific research, but do I have the faintest idea how epilepsy has been proven to exist? Have I tested this belief for myself? Of course not. Faith and science may be diametrically opposed, but faith in science exists.

Once it became clear that the girl’s condition was serious, it was important that she received adequate medical attention as soon as possible. The health service in South Africa seems fairly similar to America, in which there is no national health service, but a range of insurance options are available to those that have the money. In short, the richest jump to the front of the queue.

The girl lives in a shanty town. The roof of her house is a sheet of corrugated iron, held in place with a concrete block. She did not have access to even the most basic healthcare, and would not be able to afford a doctor’s appointment on her own. Fortunately, through some contacts in my scheme, we were able to organise a doctor’s appointment at a clinic close to where we’re staying, in a more affluent area.

The doctor was fantastic. Brusque, efficient, and full of indignation at the “ancestor theory”, she told the girl that it was indeed epilepsy, and something needed to be done. She prescribed some emergency medication, which we were able to pick up from the local pharmacy. A few days later I found out that the pills have worked, and the fits have ceased.

This outcome was better than I’d dare hope for, but it’s not time to start cracking open the champagne yet. The doctor was very concerned to hear about how often the fits occur, and to learn that they’d only started this March. Epileptics usually experience their first seizure at a much earlier age, and from then the fits occur only sporadically. The intensity and apparent spontaneity of her fits are both bad signs. There are some awful potential causes of epilepsy, including tape worms laying eggs inside the brain, and the girl desperately needs to see a neurologist.

At this point, the girl’s social situation became a more significant issue. If she had access to private healthcare, she would have visited a fully qualified neurologist and probably received a diagnosis by now. However, a single appointment would cost the equivalent of £600 — an implausible amount for a member of the South African working class. Instead, she’s been referred to Johannesburg Central hospital, which is about as effective as a chocolate teapot. Stories of day-long waiting times, hopelessly inadequate teachers, and incorrect medication don’t exactly fill me with optimism. The girl has three months’ worth of emergency medication, which should last until her appointment at Central, but beyond that, it’s all up in the air.

Epileptic fits are dangerous for a multitude of reasons, not to mention the dangers of whatever it is that’s causing them. During the doctor’s appointment, the girl told us that her mother died suddenly last year. When the doctor asked if her mother had experienced fits before she died, the girl just shut down: she stopped responding to any questions. Epilepsy is often an inherited condition, and whilst I can’t be sure, I have a horrible feeling that it has already claimed the life of the girl’s mother.

I hope that the girl is able to get herself to the hospital, to find the right neurologist and find out why her condition is so serious. But I leave South Africa in a week’s time. By the time she goes to hospital, I’ll be long gone, along with all the help that my scheme has been able to provide for her. If she isn’t given adequate long-term care, which seems to be a likelihood, then anything could happen.

White Saviour Complex: I mention it so you don’t have to.

From Guardian articles to indirect tweets, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of people from wealthy countries doing volunteer or charity work in deprived areas of the world, and much of it is valid. Over the past month, there have been several uncomfortable moments when I’ve come face to face with a mentality which is patronising at best and racist at worst. The problem is not the recognition that these deprived countries need help. The problem is the subsequent thought: I am the answer. I am the help they need.

Do I fall under the category of a white saviour? Maybe. I took it upon myself to meddle with the life of a girl who belongs to a much poorer society than my own, without being asked. I was able to help one girl, but what if I stumbled upon ten epileptic girls? Tragedy and helplessness are ubiquitous at the schools in which we teach, and there’s no way we can help everyone who needs help. Perhaps helping only one student was arbitrary to the point of being meaningless, merely material for a self-indulgent blog post I can share with everyone at home.

I am uncomfortably aware that I’ve helped to assuage the symptoms of the girl’s disease, but the cause remains unknown. In the same way, the egocentric mentality of the white saviour leads to the symptoms of poverty being treated, without affecting the cause of poverty at all. But surely treating only the symptoms is better than doing nothing at all?

I don’t really have an answer to all this. All I can say is that I did what I did, and I’m glad I did.

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