When White Saviorism Turns Deadly: American missionary played doctor, children died, when will there be justice?

Pictured is Renee Bach, an American missionary who moved to Jinja, Uganda at age 18. She is not a Doctor, not even a Nurse. With no formal medical training, Ms. Bach started experimenting with medical procedures she’d learn from Youtube.

When I first visited Uganda in 2010, I was 20-years-old and chalk-full of the white savior complex. I volunteered for 3 months at an orphanage in Jinja, Uganda and I really believed I was making a difference. I fundraised for my trip, raising thousands of dollars from family and friends to fill a role that was absolutely not necessary, even though I believed it was. The Ugandan women who cared for the children in the home were far better equipped to love and care for these children. They knew the culture, language and were a constant in the lives of the at-risk kids who came into care.

One of the hardest but most important lessons I have learned over the last 8 years has been that good intentions are not good enough. No matter how well meaning I have been or continue to be, the impact of my actions on the community I claim to be helping far outweighs my goodwill.

While in Jinja my white savior complex was only reinforced as I met other young, white American women who had moved to this same town. I watched in awe of young women who moved halfway across the world at age 18 with no experience, no college education. They were starting organizations and adopting children. How amazing? If they could do it, why not me? So I did. With only a bachelors degree and little-to-no experience, I co-founded an NGO in the same town as Renee Bach and her project – “Serving His Children.”

Initially, I admired Renee for her sacrifice and tireless commitment to helpingchildren battling malnutrition. It was not until January 2014 that my perspective really started to change. There was a child referred to our center who had previously been at Serving His Children (SHC). He and his Grandmother stayed with us for several months while he received much needed medical care. The day after we had received some good news about his heart condition, he died of a sudden heart attack. His 3-year-old body had been through a great deal of stress and it had finally given out.

We found out that this little boy had suffered a severe case of malnutrition and was brought to Renee’s NGO in Masese. They got him fat and healthy and then sent him home without so much as any consideration for the root cause of his malnutrition. There was no follow up, so he fell sick again, so sick that his body was not able to come back from it this time.

Renee and her Social Worker at the time came out to our office to discuss this case, as I made it clear I held her partially responsible for this child’s death. I explained that had she training or experience in child welfare, she’d know how critical it is to follow up on cases like this. I was frustrated at that point but all I was asking was that Renee and her team do better follow up moving forward to prevent kids from falling through the cracks and ending up right back where they started.

It was soon after this that my concern moved to terror, as I learned that the poor follow-up procedures were far from the most dangerous thing happening at Serving His Children. It was reported by multiple parties that Renee was actively practicing medicine on children that came to the center. She had medical professionals on staff but she herself, with no medical training, chose to actively treat and respond to serious medical needs of children in crisis.

Below is a screen capture of a blogpost Ms. Bach published on the Serving His Children website. This post, among others, have since been taken down. Nothing published on the internet really ever goes away. We were able to recover a number of troubling posts just like this, that were taken down after evidence was submitted to the Jinja Police and Ministry of Health in Uganda in 2015.

Here you can find a detailed account of just some of the direct, self-taught medical care this American missionary engaged in. She writes, “I hooked the baby up to oxygen and got to work….As I took her temperature, started an IV, checked her blood sugar, tested for malaria, and looked at her HB count… I was attempting to diagnose the many problems that could potentially be at hand…After doing a search for blood around Jinja town, we found her type and it was a match! We started the transfusion…”

According to previous volunteers and former staff, the above account is nothing compared to the high level medical practices Ms. Bach would engage in at Serving His Children. Taking children from actual hospitals and medical centers, Renee and her team would bring children back to the center in Masese. Renee herself would openly talk about how much she enjoyed “hands on medical care”. An unknown number of children have died in the care of this center. Proper protocol was not followed after the children died, so it could be quite challenging to find the total number of lives lost due to such serious negligence.

Pictured is Renee Bach standing in a room at Serving His Children in Masese. The room is covered, wall to wall, with photos of malnourished children.

Many of us who have tried to hold Renee and SHC accountable have been lambasted, yelled at and referred to as “the enemy” by supporters of Renee. The “home church” that Ms. Bach attended in Jinja, as well as a significant portion of the missionary community there, supported and defended her. It seems as though missionaries may have a selective tendency when it comes to following the laws of the land. Could you imagine if a young, Ugandan woman was experimenting with medical procedures on their children and they ended up dying? These same missionaries who have stood by and justified these behaviors would not sleep until they got justice if this had happened to their children.

What’s worse? Renee’s Board of Directors in America consisted of close friends and family members. When volunteers and employees would write to the board about these concerns, rather than holding Renee accountable, the board would find a way to get rid of anyone who was seen as “critical” of Renee’s calling from God.

After SHC was shut down in 2015, many of us hoped that there would finally be justice for all of the families who had children die at the center under Renee’s care. We were wrong. Up until now, there has not been a full investigation into the evidence provided to authorities here in Uganda. While we are holding Ms. Bach and SHC accountable first, we also must ask why the authorities who should have held her accountable failed to do so.

The purpose of this article is for advocacy and awareness purposes only. Sometimes, when justice is not had by way of a country’s justice system, the last resort is seeking public attention. When you share this and help us spread the word, there will be more voices demanding accountability for these families who lost their children.

7 Tips on How To Be a Good Human While Traveling to Countries in the Southern Hemisphere

We’ve put together a list of 7 general tips to keep in mind while traveling overseas, especially to countries in the southern hemisphere. This is by no means an exhaustive list. We think this is a good place to start as we all reflect on the ways in which our presence while traveling can cause harm, often unintentionally.

  1. What picture are you painting?

When you snap a photo or video, ask yourself if you are contributing to harmful stereotypes about the country and culture you are visiting OR are your photos and videos challenging the narrative? We don’t need you to come take photos of our poverty any more than you need us to go into your country and take pictures of your rural or urban poverty. Try to stick to pictures of landscapes, food, cultural experiences. DO NOT under any circumstances photograph people without their permission.

2. Would you want someone doing it to your family or in your community?

If you must photograph people in the country you’re visiting, make sure you are honoring the basic dignity and worth they deserve. Do not photograph ‘dirty’ children with torn clothing. We know you didn’t ask to take that picture because no parent or caregiver would want their child photographed in such a way. ALWAYS ASK PERMISSION and do not photograph people you have not even bothered to have a conversation with. People are people, not tourist attractions. Be very careful with the images of children. It should go without saying…but NO NUDITY (We’ve seen many tourists, volunteers and missionaries post naked photos of other people’s children!!!).

3. Be aware of power dynamics.

Many of the “developing countries” you visit have been colonized and are still very much influenced by the legacy colonialism has left. This means certain skin colors, religions and/or passports are regarded more highly, with far more privilege. Some may be ignored or even rejected while others will be honored as a guest or celebrated more than you should be. Don’t let this go to your head.

4. Watch your language.

How are you speaking about the countries and cultures you are visiting? Remember that language is powerful. When you go home and tell people about your travels, are you sharing stories that confirm or challenge the stereotypes they may hold of that country? If you met people, rather than focusing on communicating what they were lacking, try talking about all of the things they did have — culture, customs, spirituality, dance, music, resourcefulness… switching up language from “third world” to “over exploited” can make room for important dialogue.

5. You are a guest.

Whether you are traveling for a few days, weeks, months or years, you are a guest in the culture you are spending time in. It is common to hear from local people how rude and entitled foreign nationals come across. Most of us will not tell you this because we aren’t used to being invited to open up and share such things… but I promise you, these experiences are real and unending. Please remember you’re not more entitled to our country and culture than we are to yours.

6. Support the local economy.

Often times you will have the option of supporting businesses run by people from all backgrounds and nationalities. Prioritize supporting businesses run by people native to the country you are visiting. For example, if you have the option of staying at a guest house run by a Dutch guy or a Ugandan woman, a direct way to support the economy is supporting businesses run by national business women and men (*not saying don’t support other business — just reminding you this is a great way to help contribute to the local economy)

7. Think before volunteering.

What is the long term impact of painting that classroom, handing out food for an afternoon or holding babies in an orphanage for 2 days? Ask yourself if you have a specific skill-set or expertise that is highly valuable to the community you are traveling to. If you are unsure at all, we highly suggest spending time learning those working in the community long term. It’s impossible to be a good volunteer without actually understanding the needs of the community.

Ugandan woman watches 18-year-old American woman ‘adopt’ children in her country but is blocked from adopting herself

The double standard for foreign nationals runs deep. So deep that a young, single American girl can travel to Uganda and take custody of 13 children, while a married, financially secure Ugandan woman is turned down for adoption in her own country.

Patricia Musanje is a 23-year old woman who stays on the Lubowa side of Kampala. This past Wednesday, 12th of September, we were able to interview Patricia on her experience in pursuing adoption. Patricia’s husband is a dual citizen in both Uganda and the United States.

We opened the interview up by asking Patricia how she first learned of Katie Davis Majors, the American woman who is known for her New York Times best selling book, Kisses From Katie, where she details how she came to take in 14 Ugandan girls in the town of Jinja, Uganda. Ms. Musanje explained that she had been researching the adoption process in Uganda. While searching for videos on Youtube, she happened across a video that CNN featured about an American couple who had found themselves in the middle of an unethical adoption.

After finding the story detailing how a Mother was tricked into giving her child up for adoption, Patricia found an article about a 22-year-old American woman had ‘adopted’ 13 children here in Uganda. Initially, this seemed to give her hope. Surely if a foreign national was able to come and successfully complete the adoption process of multiple children, she and her husband, Ugandan born nationals, would have no trouble completing the adoption process of one child in need of a loving home.

Ms. Musanje would soon find that this was not the case.

It is a common misconception that Ugandans do not want to adopt and that is why we need people from outside to meet the needs of our children. This is far from true. It is this false sense of urgency of foreign nationals to swoop in and ‘rescue’ that bypasses all of the capable Ugandan families willing to open their homes and hearts to orphaned and vulnerable children.

This mindset is not limited to white westerners. While researching the best way to move forward with the adoption process, Patricia was met with comments from Ugandan authorities explaining, “We want these kids to be adopted by white families. It is the white families that can provide for them a better life”. This very mindset, held by foreign nationals and Ugandans alike, has allowed for an 18 year old American girl to adopt 13 children in a foreign country while a 23-year old, married Ugandan woman with more than adequate finances has struggled to even begin the process of adoption.

After reaching out to multiple babies homes, including Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja, Patricia became discouraged. Time after time her inquiries were ignored or she was turned down. When we asked if this had discouraged Ms. Musanje from pursuing adoption, she answered confidently that she has not given up the fight. She has now hired a lawyer and is speaking with a Babies Home in Kampala about beginning the adoption process.

Children being adopted by foreign nationals are often treated like trophies, fetishized for their dark complexion and exotic birth countries. The ‘parents’ are praised for saving them from the inevitably dismal future they would have surely faced if they remained in their home country. International adoption and transracial adoption are glamorized while the very problematic realities are ignored. Children are being torn from their heritage and it is being communicated that white families are preferred over families that could preserve the child’s culture, language and nationality.

While the reality has long been painted that orphanages and adoption by foreign nationals are the only option for Uganda’s most vulnerable children, there are a number of organizations working to challenge this narrative. You can find more information by researching and following the work of Child’s i FoundationAbide Family Center and Reunite Uganda.

We cannot afford to continue supporting this reality where an 18 year old American is considered a better option to raise Ugandan children than a financially stable, married, Ugandan couple. We can do better and we must.