Barbie Saviour Volunteers In Africa But Only Helps Herself.
Standing before a broken, dilapidated chalk board, a perfect-skinned brunette with stiletto heels holds a nub of chalk in a stereotypical developing world classroom. Even though it's a photoshopped image, with her static expression and impossible body shape, it's one that's all too real—and, if you've ever volunteered abroad, probably all too familiar. This is Barbie Savior, who, as she puts it, is "called by God to save the country of Africa'" with no formal education, just "some chalk and some optimism"—the only tools she thinks she needs. Hilarious? Yes. Cringe-worthy? Absolutely. But more than that, it's a fake, plastic face of a very real problem in today's tourism industry.
Created by two anonymous American travellers who "have rubbed shoulders with more barbie saviors than we can count,” while doing aid work in various African countries, Barbie Savior is an Instagram account and blog. It’s equal parts parody and potent politics.
As they explain to me via email, each image is crafted by the pair to document a different way that Westerners show up in foreign countries, ignorant of the land’s problems or how to fix them. And, through hilarious hashtags, they highlight the ways these misguided volunteers often make things worse.
[This image, from Barbie Savior's instagram, is captioned "Orphans take the BEST pictures! So. Cute. #whatsyournameagain #orphans #wheredemorphansat...".]
See, Barbie thinks that just by being there, she’s making a difference. But sadly it isn’t that simple. As the creators explain: “Early on in our work we were placed on a pedestal for doing our jobs - simply because they were in Africa. It felt uncomfortable, but we noticed others seemed to thrive off of this attention. Of course, the attention is alluring. But at the heart of it all it just felt wrong.”
Those others that thrived off the attention? They are the inspiration for many of Barbie Savior’s posts. And it's not just a classroom that Barbie takes over. Take, for example, a photo of the doll doing a week-long stint at an animal sanctuary, captioned as follows: “It was fun making an eternal impact on the wild life around here this past week! Although I’ll probably forget about this experience pretty quickly, you know what they say, an elephant NEVER FORGETS.”
Most animal facility experts recommend volunteers stay for a one-month minimum, so that the animals have time to adjust to their new caregivers. But, since that’s not an option for many travellers, lots of sanctuaries turn to people only available for smaller chunks of time. While it’s known this causes attachment issues for the animals, it helps the sanctuary make money.
[Above, a Barbie Savior post documenting misguided animal volunteers: "These creatures are so misunderstood. So stigmatized. Most only come to help and love on the lion, the elephant...but I am not most. I am not here to love the loved. I'm here to love the unlovable. The lost. The forgotten. The hippo.", the post reads.]
In terms of Barbie’s post? This means that unless she was shovelling manure and preparing animal’s meals with very minimal contact (things that probably wouldn’t work with those stilettos), she’s messed up these animals way more than she helped them.
“For those who have their Barbie bra straps on too tight, we are not saying all aid and development is bad. But we are pointing out issues that have been ignored for far too long,” explain the duo behind the posts. And, they raise a discussion that is uncomfortable but needs to be had. When we volunteer abroad, are we helping others or just ourselves?
“In the past, we have discussed so many ways of talking about the issues we have seen with those around us. Honestly, we started this as a joke between friends - a way to get the annoyances we have seen and continue to see off of our chest. We never imagined a Barbie doll and an Instagram account would end up being our art form of expression on the age old topic of the White Savior Complex,” add the creators.
[Here's the Barbie Savior post where she talks about how the animals won't forget her, as quoted above. It's complete with the hashtags "iwontrememberyou #willyourememberme #theendangered #justlikeme" and, my personal favourite, "#iwonderifeveryonebackhomesurvivedwithoutmypresence".]
But art form it has become, and more than that, the comments under each image have become a discussion about volunteering in the developing world. How can we do it properly? How can we make sure we’re leaving things better than we found them? These are the questions we need to be asking before we register to volunteer and before we book the flights. Because, if we don’t, we’re all risking becoming a Barbie ourselves.
See more of Savior Barbie and her antics here: https://www.instagram.com/barbiesavior/?hl=en