There’s a community of missionaries in Waterloo that are a Godsend for us. They have been here years longer than we have, they have practice raising children in Sierra Leone, and they are great people who will be lifelong friends.
Occasionally people will talk about raising children in Africa as compared to kids in the US. One topic I find particularly interesting is the speculation on how our children will view race. In America there is lots of discussion about race, racism, and injustice. As is unfortunately more common recently, the ideas and discussion around these topics is muddied by politics. But I’ve heard some American parents in Sierra Leone talk about how our children won’t see racism the same as if they were raised in the US. And I think that’s true, but a recent experience makes me realize how much more insidious racism can be. But first, a little backstory.
I have been working with the nurses to improve the quality of our care for 2 years (but it seems like decades). It’s a give and take dialogue where I give feedback about their work and they give constructive criticism to me about how the providers are doing. One of the routine complaints that I get is that patients are discharged too early. I initially got this feedback in 2020 and I promptly changed my spiel to patients when discharging to something like this:
“You’ve only been taking oral medicines and every day you’re improving. You can take the same medications at home, receive the same treatment, and not have to pay our hospital bed fees. What matters to me is that you get the right treatment, not where you are. If you want to stay here and pay the nightly fees, fine. If you want to go home and continue exactly the same medicines, fine. It’s your choice.”
Since, 2020 every single patient I’ve discharged it has been their choice to go home. So I was quite surprised when at this month’s meeting the nurses again complained that I was discharging people too early. I told them my modified discharge speech and they replied,
Africans have an inferiority complex and sometimes they don’t speak their mind and just do what the doctor says.
That phrase, ‘inferiority complex’ has been stuck in my mind for weeks. How is it that regardless of socioeconomic status or regional differences, the Africans still feel ‘inferior’ to me. What is it that makes me ‘superior?’
It’s not my education. Our surgeon and medical director, Dr. Kabba has had years more training than me. He’s both a physically large man and the leader of this institution, but I’m a skinny white dude who has to ask permission to sign any official documents.
The only other thing that comes to mind is the color of my skin. Foreigners who come to SL are frequently well educated and quite wealthy and anyone with white skin is often treated like royalty. Patients sometimes trust my medical opinion on surgery more than they trust Kabba’s, even though he’s the surgeon. My theological conclusions in church or morning worship are never debated, just accepted. I can just walk down the street and complete strangers will say ‘Thank you’ as I pass. As we walk through the market with Liam, people shout marriage proposals to him, even though he’s only 11 months old. Children line up to touch his pale skin. The admiration of Liam is so constant that sometimes it almost feels to me like worship.
As any parent proclaims, I’m sure my son will grow up to be smart. But how will it affect him to have the local children always assume he is the smartest? How will it shape his development where every black person around him will treat him as someone superior due to Liam’s economic status? Already the staff refer to him as ‘Dr. Fernando’ or ‘my boss.’ Will he have a distorted self-worth since he will always be the center of attention as one of the very few white children?
Sure, racism feels different in Sierra Leone than in America. But here, I sense a certain level of ‘internalized racism’ where the people inherently believe that white people are superior. Liam will spend his childhood treated as the wonderful ‘apoto’ boy who is somehow different from the local kids. Just because my son will grow up as a minority, doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity for racism to sneak in.