I have read more books than ever before this summer, and I’m anxious to write and recommend a bunch of them, but there were three that I’ve been wanting to group together here because they made a huge impact on me over the last few months.  They all happened to be on the New York Times Bestseller list so it sounds like they influenced a lot of other people as well!
I didn’t have a hard copy of “Thirst” (I listened to that one) so for some reason the Book of Mormon is stuck in my little pile below…but hey, I’m sure that helped influence us as well 🙂
We read Thirst for our book club a while back.
I talked a lot about this one back HERE, and a few other posts…
We were in the middle of all our planning for Africa back at that time and I was so grateful for all the insight into Scott Harrison’s journey to bring clean water to as many villages as he could.  I loved the journey.  I think it is so fascinating to explore the background on anyone’s journey, whether it’s your good friend, the bagger at the grocery store, someone on Instagram your teenager thinks is awesome…everyone has quite a story.  And their stories make them who they are.  I loved reading about how Scott Harrison’s passions and talents (and failures and sorrows) took him on his own personal journey to make a difference in his own way.
I love thinking about what helps US make our own difference in our own way.

I think this is really difficult, to be honest, in our day and age, especially for teenagers.  I think they (and all of us really), see SO MANY THINGS bombarding us with so much technology that streams them right front and center into our own lives that it’s so easy to capture dreams and visions of what we want to do like butterflies in a net.  When what we really need to do is examine our own desires, abilities and talents and contribute and love in the way that only we can.

But gosh, that’s a post for another day, and a long tangent, whoops.
What I really want to say is that I love that this book because it’s inspiring to see what one guy can do if he uses his own talents and abilities for good.  Loved following him go from a night club wheeler-dealer lost in a lot of his own sorrows on his journey to find meaning in life.  And to help so many people along the way.
You can get a pretty good overview of the whole story by watching this video:

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My friend recommended The Promise of a Pencil a couple years ago.
I ordered it but it ended up gathering dust for a while, lost in the shuffle of all the other books I had on my agenda.  But I picked it up a little while before we left for Africa and it is SUCH a good book!
Can you tell I liked it?
(See all those pages turned over?  HA!)
Another personal journey of a guy (Adam Braun)…so interestingly similar to Scott Harrison’s… the main part of the journey starting essentially on a ship visiting other countries.
It tells of how as he visited other countries as a student he got into the habit of asking kids all over the world if they had one wish for anything in the whole wide world what would it be?  He was baffled that one of the kids he asked answered that the biggest dream he had, if he could have anything would be a pencil.  
Then it goes on to outline the journey of how he was able…kind of “led”… to bring pencils…and eventually schools, and teachers to children all over the world.  Such an inspirational journey as well.
It was especially interesting to read as we were helping with a school in Uganda.
Here’s a random assortment of the pages I turned down:

(That last one is one of the things I loved so much about Family Humanitarian and the way they help those who reach for it, they don’t just go in and take over.)

Ok, I could go on and on, but read it!  It’s an inspiring one on so many levels.  (Thank you, Ally for the recommendation! xoxo)

The last one I read was Kisses from Katie:

It’s one more autobiography from Katie, who decided as a teenager she wanted to go live in Uganda after she fell in love with the people there on a mission trip she took there.

My friend had recommended this one a while back and when I realized it was Uganda where we were going I figured I’d better get busy reading it!

This one could take several blog posts to talk about, and I’m almost out of time, but it is a fascinating story of following your heart, and the “nudges” that push you in your own unique ways.

She is deeply religious, which I love, and felt very guided to change her life in ways that were difficult and heart-wrenching yet so beautiful and inspiring as well.

She left her family and all that she knew and has started her own organization in Uganda educating hundreds of children and adopting a whole bunch of them herself.

I found myself wondering at the different paths everyone takes in life.  This is one that is so different from what I feel called to do, but I loved learning about how she did it and was inspired to go confidently in the direction of the unique nudges I feel as well.

Some of the pages I turned over:

(I haven’t read those over very well…hopefully they are readable and not too blury!)

Gosh, so many different things to do in life, so many different nudges to follow.  We are all so unique and have so much to add to the world with our unique talents and gifts.  These three books inspired me so much to follow my own nudges that come so frequently if I’ll only stay still enough to listen.

And if I’ll have the humility and courage to follow.

They will take me very different directions, of course, but I so strongly believe that we are all meant to spread our own unique light in unique and beautiful ways.

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  1. Did you consider reading any materials from African points of view rather than exclusively whites who have travelled to Africa to "serve" or “save”? Keep in mind these underrepresented voices don't have access to the traditional media routes like book publishing and so their voices are not amplified like these white savior voices. However, you can seek out these contemporary African voices online where the barriers to entry are lower.

    Please read up on the case of Renee Bach in Uganda for just one of MANY examples of why unqualified foreigners traveling to Africa is so dangerous. Much like your family stood in front of a village as environmental educators, she represented herself as a medical expert with no medical training whatsoever. Children died as a direct result of her actions. Simply being white and believing your God told you to do it does NOT qualify you to go to Africa and act in capacities of your choosing that you could not in the US or Europe. Renee was also lauded in Western Christian media for adopting large quantities of children, which again, would not be allowed here in the US.

    You have a large platform here influencing women like yourself. Please consider your responsibility in not promoting harmful, outdated attitudes and practices. To quote NoWhiteSaviors, "If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not listening"

  2. Shawni, you are continuing to cause harm with these blog posts. You have ignored or explained away the concerns of (some expert) readers who have tried to provide you with resources for some much needed self-reflection and critical perspective. Instead, you continue to value white, privileged voices and ideas that may make you feel good, but do not in any way represent the voices or priorities of communities you visit. You have not demonstrated any interest in shifting your thinking, developing your childrens' thinking, or changing your behavior in any way, publicly or otherwise. In doing so, you are actively harming the communities and people you say you care deeply about. This is the reality of your behavior. Is this what you want?

  3. Wow, all of these books are basically about white Americans "saving" black and/or brown people… Did you consider reading any books by Ugandans before your trip?

    I really recommend this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

    It emphasises the importance of telling multiple stories, from multiple perspectives, especially stories about countries in Africa, which is so often portrayed in Western media as being a place of poverty, dirt etc.

    Perhaps Chimamanda's talk might give you some food for thought – are the books you're recommending and the story you're telling through your blog contributing to an established single narrative about Africa?

  4. Sorry Shawni, I'm here to echo CM, Carly and Rachel E. I've been a reader for a very long time – you've sent me the Book of Morman. But I find the missions and helping Africans a tricky narrative to fully support. I know you do charity work with your kids in and near your home; and I am a huge advocate for travel. I'm just not sure that the service projects are always making a true difference – and even if they are, even if for all the good, what is the 'bad' of this model? Just pondering it all..

  5. I haven't read the first two books! Thank you for the recommendations! Adding them to my list and praying that me and my family will be continually inspired to serve right in our neighborhood and across the globe.

  6. Who can recommend some books by Black Africans Shawni might enjoy and think about? The only one I think I’ve read is WHEN THINGS FALL APART (great novel) Trevor Noah’s BORN
    A CRIME and Nelson Mandela’s LONG WALK TO FREEDOM seem like a good place to start but both are celebrity books.

    1. What comes to mind is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – recently published historical fiction following the descendants of an Ghanaian woman. So Long a Letter (Une Si Longue Lettre) by the Senegalese writer Mariama Ba is a classic.

      For another perspective, I would also recommend this great essay by Binyavanga Wainaina – a satirical take on the lazy and demeaning stereotypes that white, Western writers fall into when writing about Africa. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/05/22/725808622/binyavanga-wainaina-tells-us-how-to-write-about-africa

    2. Homegoing is one of my favorite books ever, and I also really loved Stay With Me, recommended by Hannah below. I just finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I would recommend as well.

    3. Second vote for Americanah!

      I also think it might be important to offer some books focusing on racial identity, privilege and/or racism as well. Fiction and African perspectives are vital- and so is an examination of our internal ideas using nonfiction. Especially in a US context! So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo) and anything by Robin DiAngelo or Tim Wise are great starting points.

  7. Ugh. I had really believed that you went into this trip with the best of intentions. But I cannot imagine traveling to two African countries, only reading books by WHITE authors as your guide and inspiration. That just does not sit well in my stomach.

  8. I have to echo the comments above. This post and the do-good part of the trip felt quite cringe-worthy to me. Taking your daughter on a trip to see animals before she loses her sight is a wonderful and valid reason for a trip to Africa on its own, but if you want to share your ample resources and "do good," how about sending money to schools or organizations that are serving their communities and supporting African leadership and African-owned small business? People in Africa don't need white folks' leadership or good intentions. Resident leaders KNOW what needs to be done to help their communities, sometimes they just lack the resources — just send the money and the good wishes! Some food for thought: Unpacking White Saviorism
    How White and Western society’s desire to help can do more harm than good https://medium.com/@anniewindholz/unpacking-white-saviorism-7d7b659dcbb3

  9. Hi Shawni,
    While I agree with all of the commenters above, I also wanted to say I am very grateful you are willing to share your life and experiences so publicly. I hope you think deeply about the issues that have been pointed out but I also hope you continue to share your journey.

    ps. If you are interested in reading books about Africa by written by Africans I highly recommend Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

  10. I'd like to echo this and the above comments. Travel is wonderful, and taking your kids to Uganda and Kenya is fantastic. It's clear your family is great at trip planning (I am also someone who loves to do lots of research when I'm traveling!), and opportunities like the river rafting and safari are great ways to experience those countries while also supporting the local economy. Meeting the people who live there (like with your driver's family) is also one of the best ways to learn. But you can do all of these things without traveling for the purpose of volunteering in a potentially damaging way. You and your children can still learn about the world without portraying yourselves as trained at building or water quality education or teaching children.

    I think so many of us are led to comment on this because we appreciate your blog and have enjoyed following your family, but really hope you see this as another of life's learning opportunities.

  11. Growth comes in such unexpected ways. I was intrigued by your trip, but much more curious about the negative backlash within the comments section to you simply doing a good deed. I don’t see why people feel the need to tarnish a good thing, and I was upset for you. Out of curiosity, I too looked up the Nowhitesaviors account on Instagram. I was immediately turned off by what felt like a harsh, angry tone, but again, curiosity kept me scrolling through the comments, which were filled with white people, returned mission-trippers, or peace corp volunteers admitting how uncomfortable they felt reading various posts, but that they were going to stick around to do the very least they could do – listen.

    I’ve put so much thought into listening with a Spirit filled heart the last few weeks. I’ve had some deeply moving epiphanies that perhaps my own culture and background, and privilidge (white, uppermiddleclass, LDS) has indoctrinated me to believe that I can only be moved by soft, loving tones. My favorite messages are quiet. I am moved by thoughtful quiet. The temple is quiet. General conference talks are soft and soothing. Missionaries bear testimony in a very sweet, specific cadence, and it is in these gentle, quiet tones that I often feel the spirit. I think tone is so important and practice the “try again” method your mom used when I feel like my kids aren’t communicating their needs in a way I feel is polite or loving. But those initial whines, or cries or fights do always get my full attention. My charge to nurture means any cry, even an negative one catches my attention, and cues me that my children need my love. A baby’s cry always gets our attention. That is what cries were made for.

    I think of the cries I’ve been honored to bear witness to in my various callings. I feel entrusted when someone I am serving lets down their guard and uses a few too many curse words in my presence. It meant they believed me to be safe. I have been privileged to hold a sister’s hand as she wailed against God for taking her baby. Horrible things were said, and I, having the luxury of distance from her pain, felt like correcting her. Telling her that anger wasn’t the way. Thankfully in the midst of her wails I heard the spirit whisper “You need to just listen.” And I did.

    Admittedly, facing the structural racism that is built into my privileged life is uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. I often find myself feeling defensive, because man, my intents are always good. Actually staying and listening to the intent of the creator of nowhitesaviors via IG, or her own message on podcasts, and various other accounts and books recommended by your commenters has opened my heart that once again, this is an important time for me to just listen. NWS even has a recommended reading list, and I am going to start there. Listening to the words of people so different from me. Appreciating that their lived experiences might cause their tone to be uncomfortably “different” to my ears that have pre-conceived biases about what is good, lovely, and praiseworthy. Accepting that cries are generally born of pain. Knowing I am capable of hearing their cry.

    I am not going to be turned off , ever, of the tone of a cry. It is my honor that the spirit can whisper to me amidst chaos, or cries, or vulgarity or “reverse racism” or being offended, or whatever I may perceive. In one of your highlighted paragraphs Katie Davis says “ I can go to the hard places or I can remain comfortable”. NWS’s says “If you are not uncomfortable you are not listening. It’s the least I can do, and it is now my charge.

  12. Shawni,

    I've never commented here but have been a reader for years – almost a decade, actually!

    I am chiming in to say that I think you have received some truly meaningful feedback here and on your other related posts, and I hope that you and anyone who reads your blog takes the time to deeply consider the multitude of points raised. I personally learned from the various perspectives here and appreciate that people take the time to comment and share differing views. I believe (after many years of readership) that, like myself, much of your audience here really enjoys your blog and believes that you have very good intentions.

    The problem with intentions, regardless of how good or pure they are, is that they really do not matter when the primary beneficiary of your resulting actions is yourself, and where things really become problematic is when those intentions negatively impact others. Of course, I'm sure your trip produced some benefits for the community you went to serve – you helped them garden and perform other labor, you brought some additional cash via tourist activities and lodging into the local economy, etc. – but at what cost? Standing your white teenagers in front of a significantly less advantaged black community in an impoverished country to teach the community about water hygiene when said teenagers have no qualifications whatsoever (and merely had the good fortune to be born in a part of the world where clean water is largely a given) promulgates the racist notions that are still very entrenched in our society. One does not need to use certain words or consciously harbor bigoted ideas to unintentionally promulgate racist notions.

    You are in a very unique position – you have a seemingly fairly large readership that takes interest in what you say. That is a position of privilege and responsibility. Imagine the good you have already done, and the further good you could do! On the other hand, please consider the harm you are capable of doing, and that you have already done with these posts. In continuing to write glowingly about this topic, you are promoting unconsciously discriminatory thinking.

    Admitting that one got it wrong, despite absolute best intentions otherwise, is a truly "hard thing." I hope you consider that course of action and continue to use this platform for good. No one gets everything right the first time, and the great thing about life is that meaningful learning and growth have no expiration date.

  13. I am just here for a second to say that I am not ignoring this thread…there are many valid points here and so much to think about in an ongoing conversation that we can all learn from. I haven't had a minute to sit down to write back today, and I don't think I will be able to be here tomorrow either (the beginning of school is a little nutty, so I "pre-scheduled" a post for tomorrow). But I will come back as soon as I can! Thank you for the respectful comments.

  14. I wanted to just chime in and say that Shawni, I too am a big fan of your blog and have learned a great deal from how your intentionally raising your family. I appreciate that you seem open to conversation, particularly those that center and lift up the voices of Africans. It's really really important that we, as white people, keep open our posture of learning. In terms of African literature, second all of the suggestions above (particularly Homegoing. It is the best book I've maybe ever read)! I'd also add Open City by Teju Cole as a great story of Nigeria. It's more related to the U.S., but this podcast Seeing White, https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/ was the most powerful thing I've listened to. We ended up having a "book club" on it at work. Other great books that get at the systemic racism built into the fabric of our culture on the non-fiction side — The Case for Reparations by Ta Nehisi Coates https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ , Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. In terms of fiction The Hate U Give is powerful for adults and kids alike. If movies/TV are more your thing, I'd suggest When You See Us. It's hard to watch, but I believe that makes it all the more important to really sit through and take in. The same director, Ava Duvernay, also directed the 13th – a powerful documentary about mass incarceration. I'm really happy to engage in more of a conversation or share more things that have been helpful for me around my own learning journey of race and privilege.

  15. Ok I’m finally back. Thank you for the input here and on other posts about Africa because I have learned a lot!

    I want to be clear that I am not here to claim to be doing all this correctly (I do much of life wrong much of the time!), and I have a lot to learn (one reason I’m grateful for all this input). But I am trying. And with each thing I learn I am trying to shift gears and do things differently. So is my family. We are on a journey. Not just in travel and service, but in life in general. That’s the whole goal of life, right?

    I think we need to back up for a minute to look at the big picture of this whole poverty tourism/white savior business. The big picture for me is that we are all human beings with an innate ability and desire to connect. We need to be aware of one another. Martin Luther King Jr. said “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” How do we do this? Oh, in such a multitude of different ways! We can get out of those “narrow confines” in our own neighborhoods as well as across the sea, as well as in our own families. As many people have said, and I totally agree, it’s not just about good intentions. We need to educate ourselves on how to connect as well as the possible repercussions of what we do. But I don’t believe that should wait until every stone is overturned and every book is read to reach out. I should have definitely read books authored by Africans along with the ones that inspired me for this post, but I was still in “narrow confines” and didn’t think of it. So thank you for the recommendations! That does not, however, discount these books where people have broken those “narrow confines” and done much good in the world.

    I have to continue this in the next comment because it won't let me put all I want to say here…so read on below:

  16. I have a lot to learn, but what I do know is that we are on this earth to learn from one another. So I have a question I’d love to discuss if anyone is still here on this thread:) In all my reading and research there is no “answer” for the “white savior” complaint. Learn the stories, be educated, understand the culture and then what? Don’t do anything? Does this pertain to those who come to America and Europe to flee their war-torn countries as refugees as well? We were just involved in an refugee project here in the desert and I thought of all of the white saviorism things I’ve read as these good-hearted white people from our church along with Catholic Charities help these refugees get jobs and housing, and as our family was able to walk with refugee families to help them load up carts with all kinds of donations to help them get on their feet. Do people in need have to somehow figure out how to travel to a different country to get help? Do the negative perceptions of “white saviorism” pertain to a child who is dying because he/she drank contaminated water that has caused a life-threatening illness? Or to the mother who has never learned that washing her hands after cleaning up her baby’s feces could mean life or death to her other children as she prepares food for them to eat? Does this pertain to a child who has the potential to grow up and be a community leader if only she could learn to read or write? Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Who is the voice for these people? I don’t think they care about white saviorism or signing away permission to use their picture or the color of the skin of someone who is trying to help. I think what they’re thinking is that they want to stay alive.

    I apologize if what I’m saying comes across that I think all of Africa is in need. There are all kinds of educated people in Africa who have their own stories. There are wonderful families and people who are reaching out in their own communities there to give aid. (That’s what I love about Family Humanitarian, the organization we went to Uganda to support.) And that is fantastic. One "answer" for the white savior problem did come in one article I read that called for more partnerships and mentoring which I think is a good start. I definitely don’t want to come across that people here in my country don’t need help either! Because we all know there are plenty of places to reach out right in our own back yards, and I’m grateful for those opportunities as well to open our eyes to the “broader concerns of humanity.” We should definitely start in our own communities. I personally believe the real start is in our own families. Take the cheeks of those babies of ours in our hands and look into those eyes and pour energies into those right around us. Because that is the biggest impact we can make. But to not reach out outside of “the narrow confines of [our] individualistic concerns” is wrong. Mahatma Ghandi said “You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”

    I know I personally have a lot to learn. White saviorism is a big deal and something we should all be very aware of. All kinds of books to read and articles to peruse and also mistakes to make, because that's just how life is. But that has to start somewhere. So thank you for all the book and podcast suggestions to help me on my way.

    Phew, this should be a blog post of it's own…congrats if you made it through all these thoughts!

  17. You’re saying it simply and honestly didn’t occur to you to read books by Africans when you were so carefully preparing for the trip?!?! If that’s true I suggest you really examine why that would be. Also, your mention of Mormon and catholic charities helped me understand more of what’s bothering me about this. It’s the hubris involved. Mormons l believe theirs is “the ONE true church.” Incredible to think that any of us truly understand God or “knows” the the unknowable. Its exactly this kind of missionary zeal that makes you sure you “know” what other cultures, countries, families, and people need for you to swoop in and provide.

    1. Oh I sure hope it didn't come across that I know what everyone needs, only that I'm trying so hard to learn. And I also apologize if it comes across that people in my church have all the answers about God. We strive each day to get to know Him better, to understand His will, to listen to His promptings. And every church that is striving for that knowledge humbly has truth in my opinion. I had the best experience at a Muslim Eid prayer this last Sunday with a new friend from the blog, and I felt that love from God just as much there and at previous Catholic Mass experiences as I do at my own church. I believe God wants us to find Him and bring Him into our lives any way that brings us closer to HIm and helps us feel His love. I'm so grateful for how my church helps me do that, brings me so much peace and happiness in my life, and also grateful that other churches bring that same peace and love into people's lives in much the same way.

  18. Shawni,

    Thanks for you humility. I don't agree with everything you've said but I do appreciate that you've clearly done your research. There is no "answer" to the white savior complex because it's a symptom of a disease that has plagued our world for centuries.

    I also think that you should look at this outside of the bounds of just humanitarian work but at the intersection of race, religion, and country of origin and the inherent power certain identities give some people (in your case: white, Christian, American).

    1. That sounded harsher than I intended! I really am thankful for your willingness to share your faith, family, and thoughts with this little corner of the internet. It's really hard to admit when you're wrong but you were able to do it with grace and poise and still make me think. xoxo

    2. Yes, it's certainly not just humanitarian work that gives us insight, there is so much more! I'm reading the most interesting book called "Sapiens" right now, have you heard of it? It is very science-based, but so fascinating explaining the history of human-kind intersecting race, religion, imperialism, etc. Definitely I have so much to learn, we all do, right? Everyone has a story.

  19. I truly appreciate your responses to the questions raised. I do agree that when people are starving or desperate they don't care if pictures of their children are displayed without permission because they most care about survival but that doesn't mean that we should take "advantage" of their desperation. People do all sorts of things in desperation. We must consider the harm and even go beyond that and realize that maybe we don't recognize the potential of harm because of our privilege and should not assume that the act isn't harmful because we don't think it is.
    It is not my intention to keep "calling you" out on some of things that happened on your trip but there is a difference between giving money to help provide water filters and taking on the role of teaching a community how to use them. The latter is overstepping and perhaps an example of money "buying" access to a position within a community.

  20. Hey Shawni, I love your blog and am just checking in after a year & seeing this post. And it’s something I think about deeply & often, so chiming in post facto. 😉 As I’m parenting my own four girls, debating the merits of HEFY or a similar type of voluntourism, the debates presented in this thread have really been on my mind. (Before I read them on this thread–I’m a social worker, so this is how we think!). We want to intentionally provide opportunities to expand our girls’ minds and deepen their compassion, AND we hope to leverage our privilege with others to create actual systemic change and allow for stakeholder voices to be heard and to lead. I don’t have the answer on how to do this respectfully, but these two articles–from the BYU Marriott Magazine and the Huffington Post–have resonated with me ever since I read them about a year ago. I don’t think Voluntourism is for our family, after all. We love to travel, so we might just separate those two agendas. Trying to figure out the best approach. I think it can look different for every family, for sure.

    Doing Good Better https://magazine.byu.edu/article/doing-good-better/
    When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-sullivan-volunteering-abroad_n_5a7de894e4b044b3821d1627

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