Cover image courtesy of Simon and Schuster.
–by Joseph Cabrera–
Fight for the Forgotten is an Oklahoma-based charity organization that was founded by its most ubiquitous spokesman, current MMA fighter Justin Wren. In his memoir that bears the same title as the organization, Wren details his experiences as a missionary escaping the shallow trappings of fame and professional competition to build wells for the Mbuti Pygmy tribes of the Congo, where he witnessed a disheartening procession of tragedy and atrocity due to lack of resources and enslavement at the hands of the neighboring Mokpala (non-Pygmy) tribe. His short-term mission trip between bouts that he was initially henpecked into by a close friend turned into a year-long stint and creation of a subsequent non-profit, completely putting his burgeoning martial-arts career on hiatus.
The present mission statement seeks to pull a diminishing tribe, the Batwa Pygmies, back from the brink of near-extinction through a combination of cordoning off land and water strictly reserved for them and overseeing subsequent construction, agriculture and training; a feat that the national government neglected to do after an inrush of conservation agencies. “The Batwa Pygmies in southwestern Uganda are among the most bullied people in the world. After co-existing with the rainforest as hunter-gatherers and ‘Keepers of the Forest’ for thousands of years, the Pygmies are now being systematically evicted from their ancestral home” (Mission to Uganda, 2019). After acknowledgment of the problem follows the optimistic proposal of the solution. “This mission is about equipping and empowering bullied people to create their own thriving, sustainable future” (Mission to Uganda, 2019).
Of the many varied, affluent, decorated and even dubious organizations that exist in the West regarding aid in Africa, the sincerity and mettle of Wren is tough to contest. Through establishing long-term partnerships with in-country businesses and NGOs (namely Water4), Fight for the Forgotten has provided over 3,000 acres of legally acquired land to the Batwa, drilled 63 wells and started a farming initiative and well-network that has thus far impacted 25,800 people (fightfortheforgotten.org, 2019). It also has been spotlighted on the popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast, featured in a TED Talk and will be the subject of an upcoming documentary. The evolution has been facilitated almost singlehandedly by Wren, with an active presence on Ugandan soil that has meant sacrificing the chance for the athletic goals that he previously dedicated his life to pursuing and was within reach of plausibly achieving.
Yet, amid the plethora of outward successes that deserve every bit of recognition that is generated, tucked behind the exterior is an etymology looming over the topic of Africa that has been laden with prejudice and misconception for centuries. The mission statement and namesake follow suit in a pattern that has been propagating since the earliest recordings of Western intercultural contact. Fight for the Forgotten is one of the more recent iterations of how Westerners view Africa, along with what kind of buzzwords and lexicon is employed when discoursing about it.
Contemporary times have found Western culture as a whole to be much more reflective and self-aware about their placement within the globalized framework, with the advantages inherited from colonialism being a source of major chagrin to a growing sector of conscientious individuals. That shift in identity has helped to spawn a mass movement of sorts that has seen the continual growth of aid agencies, relief committees, voluntourism and other humanitarian endeavors. A resultant psychological effect is that a portrait is conjured of Africa as being victims and vessels of charity for the gallant Westerner to come in and save. Additionally, Africa as synonymous with suffering and stagnation is not only fraudulent, but also bolsters a complex on behalf of the West as the perennial, adventuring rescuers. Voluntourism, for example, is a relatively modern phenomenon that is typically too brief to effect meaningful change and exists in some cases for self-serving purposes, whether that be fattening the pockets of a supposed charity or giving volunteers a semantically mellifluous reason to visit the continent within the safety of a group setting. They are fulfilling the role of savior in the narrative that has been fashioned for them since the inceptive stages of the colonial era.
“Voluntourism with children also perpetuates the notion of a desperate Africa needing the benevolence of the West. Volunteers are led to imagine that their engagement directly addresses suffering. Many believe the children they work with don’t have any other social systems to support them materially or socially” (Freidus, 2017). Wren and company are the antithesis of voluntourism, but similarities abound in the presentation of the archetypes. The way that it took a big, burly Caucasian pugilist to finally raise awareness in standing against the cruelties being afflicted on a noble tribe fits neatly within the dynamic of the powerful defending the powerless. The irrepressible appeal to common humanity shines a light on the inspiring soul of the Westerner while reducing the Pygmies as props whom he lends his heroism to. It is this generation’s “intrepid man of hardy pioneering stock” (Mutongi, p. 27, 2007) heeding the divine call to civilize a godless terrain.
When expansion was the name of the game, much of Europe deemed it necessary to oversee operations in Africa under the proclamation that it was for the incompetent locals’ benefit, who in their “backwards” and “lower” state would presumably squander the prospective national wealth if given control. The hidden agenda was to obtain swaths of the undiscovered wealth of raw materials rumored to exist in the tropical regions, of which ultimately nothing would be shared with the home continent, but geopolitical power-plays were craftily masked by a recurring tendency of Westerners to assume the role of vicarious state-as-caretaker. While wholesale exploitation has been replaced with incremental giving, an extraordinary leap forward to be sure, Fight for the Forgotten subscribes to the next step in the evolution of Western perception toward individuals like the Pygmy tribes––the “noble savage”––who is “untouched from the vices of civilization and at peace with himself and his environment” (Reid, p. 139, 2009). The framing of the Pygmies is not as outright condescending as that of the nineteenth century, when discrimination was arguably taking shape and at its highest, but they are still spoken of in terms that are equal parts infantilizing and mystifying. The same could be extended to encompass most of Africans in general. Moyo (2009) remarked on the prejudicial perception with the following:
“There is, of course, the largely unspoken and insidious view that the problem with Africa is Africans––that culturally, mentally and physically Africans are innately different. That, somehow, deeply embedded in their psyche is an inability to embrace development and improve their lot in life without foreign guidance and help” (p. 31).
The irony is that what could be chalked up to mere inevitable cultural conflicts appears from an outside perspective to be the agents of assistance that are hindering development, not necessarily due to prejudicial and punitive reasons but to systemic forces and inefficiencies that are proving hard to remedy. “The trouble with the aid-dependency model is, of course, that Africa is fundamentally kept in its perpetual childlike state” (Moyo, p. 32, 2009). It is made exponentially more difficult to reverse when there is a status quo in place with working political structures and independent businesses that profit from the image of Africa as being a chaotic and chronically dependent place.
This negative perception becomes media coverage that has a large degree of unfortunate influence on the Western public. Even other organizations and notable hubs of higher education such as Peace Corps and college students have imagined the region to be “a place of destruction, primitive conditions, and injustice, and where people practice strange religions” (Amin, 2016). There has been a surge in commodity prices, causing many African economies to post steady annual growth rates, over 50% now have democratic elections that are deemed free and fair, poverty rates have been falling faster than predicted and the death rate of children under five is dropping (Rothmeyer, 2011), but such statistics rarely make headlines. Stories become newsworthy when there is war and famine, which are easier to sell and are packaged as being Africa’s problems, or rather when there is a breakthrough in development that the West can siphon some of the credit for.
This kind of depiction could reinforce feelings of victimhood, obtuseness and dependency. There is evidence of stereotypes of Western thought being parroted by some of the most powerful leaders in all of Africa, referring to the development of social and economic structures, to modest villagers groveling about the atrophying amenities left behind by a long-gone group of missionaries. “Sometimes, African leaders would go an extra mile to despise their traditional institutions and policy choices, and praise Western based policy prescriptions as having saved Africa from economic and political crises” (Poncian, p. 77, 2015).
Even when confronted with adverse information, they would selectively ignore it, perhaps for undisclosed motives such as to continue receiving aid or not tamper with the patronage aspect of a particular relationship. If so, charity and alms could be used as leverage that strengthens the pejorative image that was invented for Africans, distorting the tacit merits of “aid” and imprinting those labels of victimhood and obtuseness on the minds of Westerners and Africans alike. It is not uncommon for recipients of aid to be beholden or expected to carry out the bidding of a donor. If truth and infallible accuracy had its druthers, the terms “aid” and “budget support” would be replaced with something closer to “reparations” or “compensation.”
Some leaders are firmly adopting the opposite approach by implementing development programs while refusing donations from the West. Rwandan president Paul Kagame ruffled international relations when he ceased following through on the demands that came with the aid-giving power relations. “International aid, particularly that given to Africa, had come under criticism through the 1990’s for being ineffective and self-serving, and for stymieing domestic political development” (Marriage, p. 46, 2016). He became an antagonistic and polarizing figure, calling donors “overbearing,” claiming that they had money but no moral superiority. He also called the partnership a “child-to-parent” dynamic and a “carrot-and-stick” approach to groom Rwanda into a devout advocate of their unilateral policy decisions.
These structural differences are admittedly the domain of governments and thus much larger than something like the grassroots FTFF. Their dozens of wells and thousands of lives impacted are paltry compared to the billions of dollars at stake in the macroeconomic marketplace of aid and state-building. Charity will never reach the level of influence that government-to-government aid has. Be that as it may, the case of Kagame is indicative of a changing attitude toward the broad perception of Africa that has plagued it at every level since the partitioning, when states had to ally themselves with a more affluent institution. Kagame is going against the trope that Africa is dependent on the West, both morally and monetarily, to keep them on-track, much like the ploy to justify occupancy during the era of decolonization. Dependency is illustrated in the anecdotes proffered from a mother to her daughter in a remote postcolonial Kenyan village (Mutongi, p. 2, 2007).
“According to my parents’ generation, once “our people” took over after independence they “ruined our schools and hospitals.” “That Kaimosi hospital where you were born,” my mother would say, pointing at me, “used to be a first-class maternity hospital, now there is nothing, not even gloves. When our black people took over, they stole everything.”
She is bemoaning the fact, as she sees it, that white missionaries went to great lengths to construct the services necessary for advancing the functionality of the town according to Western values, but what was woefully absent was overcoming the barriers to impute a semblance of the Protestant values that went into the structures. This type of rhetoric comes up time and time again, and is admittedly found more frequently in bygone eras, whereas currently it might still exist, but few dare to speak so flippantly lest they run the risk of incurring ostracism. However, there is an evasive and layered similarity between the prevalent way of thinking back then and how it manifests at present. Just as many Westerners spoke of Africans as “savages” while carrying out horrific acts of slavery and massacre, now through the enabling cloak of humanitarianism is the most popular way that such matters are discussed.
When certain European armies saw fit to pillage and exploit, they did so by vilifying the other. It worked so effectively that it was not long before slavery was considered a legitimate business of ownership over the heathen black population with barely a peep of debate over morality. King Leopold II even garnered acclaim as a humanitarian for his funding several mission schools in the same place that he was staging a systemic looting. Generations hence who are more interconnected, educated and abide by different standards are poised to atone. Instead of “savages” these individuals are now rendered as more exotic. They are animistic, atavistic, agrarian and most importantly, “forgotten.” Curiously enough, the name of the charity is supposed to have derived from the fact that the Mbuti call themselves the “Forgotten People” (Wolf, 2015). In the case of Fight for the Forgotten, there is an abundance of empathy, but the subjects are still the “other” and everything of goodness and value is imported in from the white man.
When Mutongi’s mother talks disparagingly about black people, the intensely racial component is made obvious. Even those inhabiting the densest reaches of the tangled jungle are familiar with the pervading sense of an inherent unfairness and concomitant white superiority. The mere name Fight for the Forgotten, catchy as it is and dovetailing wittily with Wren’s backstory, evokes the earlier depiction of a “desperate Africa needing the benevolence of the West.” Indeed, there is a whole prior linguistic lineage that the charity organization expertly contributes to. It has a media-friendly ring to it that mimics other visceral noun-verb pairings. Save the Whales, Feed the Children, Teach for America, Heal the World Foundation and so forth.
Is FTFF a cause born of true conviction and philanthropy, spearheaded by a bona fide mensch who quit his successful life of national championships and rising celebrity status to sleep in a rainforest among the Pygmies and contract malaria three separate times? Absolutely. Is his connection with them as real outside of the camera’s view and does working with in-country NGOs make for a canny strategy? Without a doubt. Razeen (2010) assessed the endgame goals of NGOs which practically reflects the mission statement of FTFF word-for-word.
NGOs aim to increase capacity, to enrich and empower citizens so that they can improve their quality of life themselves. They contribute towards restoring self-worth and sense of dignity by involving the citizens in the development process which gives them confidence to actively participate in society, to accomplish further and to serve their families better (p. 58).
The organization deserves praise, acknowledgment and more popularity, but that does not change the stigma that Africa is an extraordinarily misrepresented environment. When discussing the organization, many people assuredly resort to focusing on Wren, praising his benevolence. The next topic is the results: amount of money raised, wells built, everlasting bonds made, conditions improved, and lives impacted. The Batwa Pygmies have much to be grateful for as their infrastructure expands to become more self-sustainable, but their placement in the context of the narrative is still relegated to formerly forlorn, disease-stricken hunter-and-gatherers who have had their lives magically transformed by the modern conveniences and customs brought over by assiduous altruists. In accordance with the majority of previous renderings, the story unfolds as one of drama and overcoming the numerous Africentric obstacles through the Western lens, while the locals are still treated as subjects of a societal experiment, albeit a much more humane one than the machinations of colonialism.
In the age of humanitarianism, the labels are kinder and more empathetic, but they still have not outgrown being projections of the Western imagination, pieced together by secondhand impressions and the liberal novelty of being the “other.” The presence of the Pygmies in the storyline is a constant fixture but their side of it is never included. Their opinions on the experience are not explicitly stated. There is simultaneously the sweetness of the human-element to the story and a familiar mode of thinking that backfires; there is toxicity in electing to speak for the marginalized rather than listen.
Justin Wren, a.k.a the “Big Pygmy” or “Efeosa” as he is colloquially referred, which means “The Man Who Loves Us”, is every bit of the leader and messenger of a brighter tomorrow that he is depicted to be, with his company motto being the simple yet effective “Defeat Hate With Love.” Yet the pre-eminent lesson might be that humanitarianism is malleable, and thus fraught with appropriation and loaded ideologies. Occasionally certain aspects of attempting to do good in the world have unintended consequences.
In a twist of irony, the only statement that is attributed to a local is told through Wren. He was asked to speak for the Pygmies because they told him that they had no voice (fightfortheforgotten.org/pygmies, 2019). There is an essence to the situation with multiple variables that lack proper definition. Seeking out the points-of-view of even fellow Africans that are unrelated to the Pygmies or Ugandans would have helped round out a portrait that reflects a composite whole, rather than having complex issues be filtered onto a blank canvas by a Caucasian American male. The organization itself is outstanding, but the implications of it are part of a larger and more protracted story-arc that is only being half-told. The myth of the West being the appointed rescuer of an abject Africa has to be transformed if humanitarianism is to be more aligned with the virtues that it espouses.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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