Last week, Ugandan police were called to a hotel in the center of the capital Kampala where an American citizen had assaulted and racially abused hotel employees.
Jimmy Taylor, 69, a self-proclaimed missionary, uttered a barrage of insults at Ugandans working at one of the oldest hotels in the city, the Grand Imperial Hotel. The whole spectacle was captured on video and, thanks to social media, the footage went viral and became a point of debate and conversation beyond Uganda.
In the video, Taylor can be seen punching and slapping the workers calling them “niggers,” saying “I’ve come to love Uganda, I’ve come to help Uganda, but Uganda hates Jesus through this son-of-a-bitch.” The hotel workers showed fortitude in the face of this abuse—a point that raised much commendation and criticism on social media.
The behavior and attitude of this self-described missionary, unfortunately, is all too common. It might not manifest in the exact extreme ways, but all over Uganda, you can find stories of racist behaviors and incidents living up to the White Savior Complex. In 2016, a video surfaced showing white missionary girls in traditional central Uganda attire doing daily chores and dancing with plastic jerry cans. The five girls danced to the tune of Justin Timberlake’s song “SexyBack,” with modified lyrics, “I’m bringing missions back.”
Luket Ministries, an Oklahoma missionary group working in Uganda, had released the video, mockingly noting that “no mosquitos were harmed during the making of this video.” Even though they took down the video later, Natasha Perryman, the creative director of the ministries, said the idea for the video “came in a dream from God, the author of every creative thing.”
It is important, however, that these savior narratives are discussed and not tolerated. This is especially true in the age of Donald Trump, who dubbed African nations “shithole countries.” At a time of raging debate on white supremacy, nationalism, and anti-black racism in the United States, one wonders why the work of white missionaries isn’t in America today—and not Africa.
The place of missionary work in the 21st century cannot be divorced from its roots in colonialism and imperialism. So when you watch Taylor behave the way he did, it is not an anomaly; the only difference is that it was fully captured on camera. Taylor, a Vietnam veteran, said the attack resulted from mental illness induced by stress—a recurring motif used when mass shootings take place in America.
Given increased mobile penetration and internet connectivity in Uganda, fortunately, these attitudes can be captured and interrogated, and in the case of Taylor, justice sought. In a country where over 84% are Christians and over 74% of the population is below the age of 35, a younger generation is looking for new ways to solve everyday challenges, besides addressing and challenging the place of aid, volunteer tourism (“voluntourism”), and missionary work.
Those who have benefited from this skewed power dynamic in the past will have to reflect and look for new ways of engaging Africans as equals.