In the old days of the entertainment industry, an up-and-coming actor would find celebrity by entering into a sham marriage or, in the more recent era of reality TV, making a scandalous sex tape that somehow “leaked” to the Internet. Of course these days, celebrities are “multiplying like head lice.” And actress Louise Linton, known mostly for her roles in the comedy film "She Wants Me" and the Lifetime movie "William & Kate," took a different approach. Presumptively to boost her profile, Linton recently decided to reminisce about her “gap year” spent on a voluntourism stint in Zambia during 1999.
Unfortunately for Linton's career prospects, the reception of her self-published book, "In Congo’s Shadow," did not go very well. Either Linton conveniently forgot many details from that episode in her life 17 years ago, or she is remarkably ignorant about Zambia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in general.
Despite the challenges endemic across the globe, African countries continue to rank amongst the world’s most rapidly growing nations, depending on the source cited. Sub-Saharan Africa has become a hub for clean energy innovation, a magnet for multinationals looking for that last new market and further experimentation in social enterprise. Even conventional media companies such as CNN, which long portrayed Africa in a negative light, have acknowledged the emerging technology and business centers in cities as diverse as Addis Ababa, Cape Town and Nairobi.
But Linton chose to hold on to old assumptions about Africa in her memoir, which is a gift that keeps on giving and hardly in a good way as she veers between neocolonialism and overt racism. The Amazon.com description, in which Linton describes herself as having “long angel hair” and the establishment of a school “under the Mukusi tree,” presented enough red flags.
But then the British daily The Telegraph published excerpts of Linton’s story last month, which read as a contrived tearjerker of a war memoir as Linton describes how she uprooted herself from a life of prestigious schools and a secret garden, only to find herself confronting every fair-skinned maiden's worst nightmare in Africa:
“The dense jungle canopy above me had eliminated what little moonlight there was and plunged me into inky blackness deep in the Zambian bush. I lay very still, listening for the armed rebels and wondering how long it was until daybreak, not knowing if I’d survive to see it.” – An excerpt from "In Congo’s Shadow," published in The Telegraph.
Critics -- often mocking, but usually with fury -- were beside themselves with other details, such as machete-wielding child soldiers or Zambia’s 12-inch spiders. So over the past week, Linton applied a virtual machete to her book in order to salvage her reputation as she halted its sale, deleted her Twitter account and turned her initial dismay over the furor into an apology. In a cruel twist of irony, any references to the book are nonexistent on her website, with the first magazine cover displayed in her press section bearing the title, “Top Scottish jokers of all time." To many observers, "In Congo’s Shadow" was so outrageous that it appears to mimic the parody Instagram account Barbie Savior, which had this to say about the controversy:
Voluntourism has long been criticized by Africans as a self-serving exercise by privileged outsiders who seek personal redemption or more bullet points on a graduate school application. But Linton's melodramatic and clichéd account of her time in Zambia is insulting to anyone who actually invests resources in this region because they see themselves as equal partners, not saviors. Whether the efforts involve opening a restaurant in Ethiopia or funding technical training programs in South Africa, these individuals and organizations succeed not out of condescension or a literal self-image as a white knight helping victims, but because they work with locals as equals.
As the creators of Barbie Savior have explained, good work overseas is accomplished by understanding the challenges on the ground where one wants to truly “help,” not by making a pilgrimage to fulfill a narcissistic quest to find self fulfillment.
Image credit: Matthew Grollnek/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.