Another White Hero Story

We've seen CNN's "Mozambique or Bust" documentary film before. It's a staple of its genre.

A story about “how ordinary people come together to do something extraordinary,” this is how Miro Sorvino, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking, introduces the work of four white Americans who send over 30,000 used bras to be sold in Mozambique by former sex slaves. The new CNN documentary “Mozambique or bust” is another celebration of American heroism in which the white savior comes to Africa, this time to Mozambique. The documentary traces the donation, collection and shipping of used bras from Denver to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital.

It features interviews with the two founders of Free the girls, an American NGO that found its calling in helping former sex slaves make a living with selling bras in the market. It also includes statements from the director of the partner organization, Project Purpose, in a town close to Maputo, a safe house where women that had been trafficked to work as prostitutes live after they were freed and are “spiritually and emotionally restored.” Except in the very beginning, we hear few statements from the women themselves—oh, but right! They are not the heroes in this story.

“From the depth of darkness come stories of hope and heroism,” Mira Sorvino says, and the camera shows us Dave Terpestra, one of the founders of Free the girls, kicking a football with his kids. Dave heard stories of human trafficking and “just couldn’t let go,” he had to move to Maputo and help! He could not offer legal help (since he was not a lawyer), but could offer his “care” and help the women earn money so they could support themselves. His idea was simple—there are lots of bras in the “graveyard” of American women’s underwear drawers, bras are a luxury item in Mozambique, and the women from the shelter, by selling bras to women, could work with women, which would provide them with a safer environment than working with men.

The documentary is a feel-good story—“anyone can help” is the message, even the stay-at-home mom! We also see that helping is emotionally fulfilling (Dave’s NGO co-founder Kimba Langas cries when the truck with the bras leaves). And it’s so simple: Just donate whatever you no longer need.

If it only were so simple. After the pilot sale of some bras proved a success, the women in the safe house had to wait for the shipment from the US, which was delayed several months. This situation could have shown the NGO the kind of dependencies it was about to create. But nope, the heroism continued, the partnership with an international shipping company started, and charity made all the challenges disappear over night. The bras arrived in Maputo, and their arrival “made the girls smile,” which is “so rare for these girls” (by the way, why are the 15 years-old and up called “girls” all the time?). That’s success, isn’t?

Well, we don’t know. The women’s business will depend on charity as long as the women don’t have anything else to do than selling bras. The import of second-hand clothing is a questionable contribution to Mozambique’s economy. I give credit to Free the girls that they respond to some criticism on their website and link to studies that are supposed to show that the import of second-hand clothing does not have a negative impact on the domestic economy by substituting domestic production. Well, supposed to, since the linked studies do not provide a simple answer, although they do review literature that questions the direct relation between an increase in second-hand clothing and a decrease in domestic clothing production. More importantly, however, Free the girls calls its project sustainable because the women have to pay for additional bras once they sell their initial inventory. No mentioning of how the women are supposed to sustain their own future when they no longer have access to bras from America. Oh, but right! Every international NGO needs to make sure that they are needed as long as possible.

As always, the intentions are good, but we know even if they are, development policy should rarely be based on them. It only makes for a glossy CNN documentary, not for an actually sustainable and equitable development project that empowers the recipients. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to fight human trafficking and support the women of Project Purpose’s safe house, but the question is how.

As a side note and historical reminder, there was a time when bras were understood to be more confining than they were liberating. But that doesn’t fit into the hero story, not if it’s about white men and stay-at-home moms. Kimba is actually an award-winning filmmaker we learn on the NGO’s website, but CNN did not see this fit into its story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Further Reading