Seldom does one feel the urge to start an article with the phrase, “Ah! Come and see!” but that is the extent of this particular travesty. Recently the BBC published an exposé on the “The Compassion Experience”, an interactive travelling exhibit that takes visitors through the true stories of children living in developing countries. The programme is sponsored by Compassion International, a Christian charity organisation that provides care for impoverished children through sponsorship.
The immersive experience was intended to show UK citizens “the sights, sounds and smells of a developing country”.
According to the charity, the Compassion Experience truck has visited 31 churches and city centres across the UK. More than 19 000 people have visited the exhibit, including nearly 4 000 school children.
In response to a scathing backlash, Caroline Cameron, head of the Compassion Experience, defended the venture, saying that it is not about indulging in distress or perpetuating detrimental stereotypes of Africa. “For us the most important thing is, this is about stories of hope and opportunity of real children, and they developed the story with us. We do it with them in the communities it [poverty] is affecting.”
What in the religious caucasity?
If you are inclined towards Cameron’s explanation, perhaps it is because you do not have the full picture, not having experienced the exhibits.
In a 2018 article on the website ParentMap.com, freelance author Tiffany Doerr Guerzon describes her experience when she visited the exhibition. She explains that each exhibit is narrated to visitors through headphones attached to an iPod as they walk through staged rooms.
“We saw living quarters, bedrooms, markets and other scenes. Each room is outfitted with furniture, mats on the floor for sleeping, cooking implements, fake food on plates, children’s toys, etc. The spaces are cramped, and the walls look as if they are made of exposed brick or mud, depending on the country. Posters in the country’s language add to the scene. In the last room of each exhibit, visitors hear about the child’s life today, as an adult — after having been sponsored as a child.”
Of course, the bottom line is for visitors to pick a child to sponsor from a catalogue of profiles – the same way you would pick a knitting pattern or a dress design at your tailor.
Guerzon continues, “Pictures depicting weddings, graduations and meetings with sponsors hang on the wall. You are then directed to watch a short video on an iPod, where the adult speaks about what it meant to be lifted out of the extreme poverty of their childhood.”
Guerzon sums up the experience, saying, “The sound of a child’s voice telling the story of living in poverty is very moving. The scenes are artfully composed, and touches like crumpled candy bar wrappers and newspapers from the country you are learning about add authenticity.
“Overall, I found the experience to be both moving and educational. The immersive nature of the exhibit was an effective way to see how people live day to day in extreme poverty.”
The cringe of it all! It is a task to figure out which is worse – the experience or the glowing review!
When the Compassion Experience decided to showcase its poverty voyeurism in Birmingham earlier this year, the announcement evoked a substantial backlash from people in the area. Apparently even fellow Caucasians could not get on board such a blatantly schismatic display.
Labour councillor for Sparkhill, Nicky Brennan, said, “It doesn’t belong in Birmingham, where you can walk up many streets and witness poverty.” She aptly labelled the project a “poverty safari”.
Brennan said in a statement that the charity has “justifiably received backlash from ordinary Brummies who have called it out, explaining that poverty is not for entertainment.” She added, “Interactive poverty is not entertainment. This voyeurism should not make us feel good about ourselves.”
"An immersive poverty experience is coming to #Birmingham this month allowing both adults and children to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a developing country."
"Family-friendly" simulated poverty safari on a bus by @compassionuk!?!
— Dr Stephen Pritchard (@etiennelefleur) April 22, 2019
Not only is this disgusting, but it perpetuates so many of the crass missionary stereotypes of international #charities
— RitaChadha – Serious (@SeriousRita) April 22, 2019
Speaking on the same topic to the BBC, Ciku Kimeria, a Kenyan author who has 10 years of experience working in development, said these curated stories have become African caricatures. “The pregnant teen, the poor child, the suffering mother… White people get to gaze; it is for their consumption. Is that how you build compassion, by objectifying people?”
Her fear is that this kind of charity work is “superiority cloaked as altruism”, not to mention being a perpetuator of a limited and damaging narrative. “In addition to the individuals whose stories are being told, it becomes a larger narrative – it easily becomes the story of all Africans.”