“Mary and Martha” Save Africans from Malaria

I happened upon a movie titled “Mary and Martha” on HBO the other day. My curiosity was piqued by its description, “Two very different women forge a bond steeped in tragedy and African culture in this uplifting tale.” The first thought that came to my mind was “What is this African culture that they speak of? Naturally, I pressed play to find out.

Here is a basic summary about the movie for the benefit of those who haven’t watched it. You can also find more detailed versions online.

The movie is about two women, Mary and Martha, whose paths cross as a result of similar personal tragedies. Mary, a wealthy designer from Virginia, pulls her son, George, out of school because he is being bullied and takes him on a six-month mother-and-son trip to South Africa. While there, they decide to visit Mozambique, where George is bitten by a mosquito, contracts malaria and dies. Martha, a British housewife, sends her son, Ben, an avid soccer player to Mozambique to work as a teacher at the Luz do Dia orphanage. He too dies from malaria, a few weeks after his arrival.

The two women, united in grief, form a strong bond that culminates in activism. Martha stays in Mozambique to volunteer for the orphanage her son worked in. Mary returns to Virginia where she begins lobbying the U.S government to give more aid to fight malaria. The two women are given the opportunity to speak before a Congressional subcommittee where they give an emotional plea – complete with pictures of African children who have died from malaria – for more aid. Their request is granted and they go back to the Luz do Dia orphanage with trucks full of mosquito nets to be distributed to the children and neighboring communities.

Watching this movie reminded me of some of the things that are wrong in the manner in which The West engages with and in Africa. From the way in which Africa is depicted in the media to the policies that Western governments pursue when it comes to our great continent.

Early on in the movie, Mary and George arrive in South Africa. Mary is surprised that her driver, Pumelele, who is also the owner of Safari Houses, where they will be staying, listens to western music more so country music. “Oh, so we are not gonna get any Ladysmith Black Mambazo?” she asks him. Music is universal last I checked. I am not sure why anyone would be surprised that in present day South Africa, people do not only listen to South African musicians. I’m also not sure why they would go in with the expectation of hearing one type of music over another.

There is a scene where Mary and George are seated at a table outside one of Safari Houses’ cottages. George picks at his food and appears disinterested. At this point, Mary asks Patience, Pumelele’s wife, if they have anything more American. Pumelele tells her that Patience makes very good pizzas. “Really? You have pizza in Africa?” Mary says. Again, I am not sure why anyone would be surprised at this. First of all, pizza has been in Africa for quite some time now. Secondly, Pumelele markets his cottages to the international community so it is only natural that they would have foods from different parts of the world. Finally, the world is becoming a global village and with this increased connectedness comes an exchange and sharing of foods, cultures, and music, among others.

While in Mozambique, George complains of feeling unwell and thinks that it is as a result of something he ate. Mary tells him that she is not sure whether the chicken they ate was really chicken. We all know that there are many stereotypes about Africa out there. One of them is that when you go to Africa you are bound to get sick. Another one is that you will eat many a questionable things because, you know, Africans eat anything that moves. In this one scene the movie managed to perpetrate both those stereotypes. Mary’s comment confirmed many people’s fears about eating “African food.” Was it really necessary for her character to express doubt in what she was eating?

We learn very little about the Africans in the movie. We see them and occasionally hear them speak. The aim of the movie is to raise awareness about malaria and what can be done about it. However, it makes no effort to humanize the very people who this preventable disease mostly affects. The audience is given numerous details about Mary and Martha, their husbands and children but none about the Africans. We meet Pumelele and get very few personal details about him. He owns Safari Houses but is mostly depicted as the driver throughout the movie. Pumelele’s children all get  screen time as George’s playmates. We know a lot about George, his likes and dislikes. All we know about Pumelele’s children is that one of them thinks that the hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa, they enjoy looking for snakes and playing pick-up soccer. You know, typical African stuff. Micaela has been taking care of the children at the orphanage. Again we are not told anything about her. Her role as caregiver is not emphasized as much as her role as Ben’s love interest. The children also get the same treatment. They are seen taking part in everyday activities –  learning, playing soccer, singing and sleeping. None of their personalities or interests are revealed.

After a chance meeting, Mary and Martha share their stories of loss. Martha goes on to reveal that her son, Ben, gave away his antimalarial drugs to the children he was teaching. “He figured he was stronger, so he would be fine.” Herein begins the White Savior Syndrome that permeates throughout the rest of the movie. Now, the thing about antimalarial drugs is that they are not completely protective. As such, they have to be combined with other preventive measures such as using mosquito nets and insect repellants. Another thing about them is that they are more effective if taken as prescribed and as a complete dosage. So this whole concept of sharing the drugs amongst the children doesn’t particularly make sense. People react differently to the various antimalarial drugs out there, thus it is not advisable to randomly give people the drugs without their medical information. I know that it’s a movie and there are time constraints, but I think the writers could have found a way to make this information known to the audience.

The first time both ladies visit the orphanage, they are shown eight children, each under their own mosquito net in a room. One of the children has malaria. Later on in the night, we see Martha next to the child’s bed. Shortly after, she is joined by Mary. Their conversations wake Micaela up. She determines that the child’s condition is worsening and as such he needs to be rushed to the hospital. It turns out that the hospital is a two-hour bus ride away. Mary presumably contacts Pumelele because in the next scene he is driving them to the hospital where doctors are able to save the child. Once again the West saves the day courtesy of Mary and her connections. Who knows what would have happened to the child had they not had the car. Orphanages usually have vehicles on standby for such emergencies. In cases where they don’t they know who to contact in order to get last minute transportation. The movie however, does not include or even leave room for this other side of the story to become known to the audience. God forbid that people should see that Africans are organized and have plans of action in place. I also want to point out a rather strange occurrence during the hospital scene. While the child is shaking on the bed, a fly of sorts attempts to land on his forehead. We all know the African story is never complete without the mandatory insect.

Martha decides to stay on in Mozambique and volunteer at the orphanage. There is a scene where she is teaching a group of children how to make bags so that they can sell them at the local market and “make a lot of money.” Now, there is nothing wrong with empowering people, in fact I am all for it. However, as the audience, what we see is a community that is not engaged in addressing its own problems. Instead they wait until a volunteer from the West, full of initiative and creativity, comes in and teaches them practical skills that they can use to generate income. We don’t see the adult community members getting involved in such initiatives to help the orphanage. This does to some extent imply that they are either unwilling or simply lack the drive to make a difference. As a viewer, that scene made me wonder who the community members were, what their story as relates to the orphanage was and why that story wasn’t being told. Community members have been known to rally around orphanages and give whatever little they have to help the children. Would it have hurt the producers to showcase this narrative? Africans are now more than ever actively involved in solving their problems. So why is Western media still stuck on that “Africans need to be saved by the West” narrative?

Meanwhile back in Virginia, Mary tries to solicit for more funding to fight malaria. She contacts practically every mover and shaker in Washington D.C with little success. Finally she asks her father, a well-known political figure, for assistance. By this time she has been joined by Martha, who left Mozambique after the aid agency sent Ben’s replacement to the orphanage. This is one of the issues that I have with international aid agencies. They have no exit strategy. They come into a community and their presence there is characterized by volunteer after volunteer and aid worker after aid worker. All the while dictating to communities what they think is best for them. Why can’t they use local volunteers? Why can’t they work with community members, come up with a clear plan of action of what they can do to help and how, and then leave the communities to thrive on their own? Must they keep fuelling this cyclical aid dependency pattern?  Another thing is that volunteering in Africa has come to be regarded as a way for people to find themselves and have something out of the ordinary to put on their resume. Volunteers go into communities with that attitude as opposed to the “Let me partner with the community members, find out what they need and how I can be useful to them” attitude.  The other obvious message that this lobbying scenes send is that all that is needed to deal with malaria is more aid. That is really not the case and it’s about time people stopped pushing that message.

The concluding scene is that of Mary and her husband arriving at the orphanage with two trucks filled with mosquito nets. They find Martha already there with the children, Micaela and Kumi, the other staff member. It is here that the community members finally show up – to receive free mosquito nets. We then see them happily walking back to their homes with the mosquito nets perfectly balancing on their heads. The children also get the nets and are jumping for joy. While free things are good, in such cases they are band aid solutions. These nets wear out and need to be replaced occasionally. The movie itself depicts this – a mosquito went in through a hole in the net and bit George. Measures are needed to ensure that the community can keep supplying themselves with nets. Some of these include, offering training to people so that they can make nets, providing low cost loans to community members who are interested in starting mosquito net businesses, looking for ways to recycle worn out mosquito nets so that they don’t end up as waste that is detrimental to the community. Lacking such measures creates a cycle of dependency because organizations will have to keep supplying these mosquito nets. There are also a host of other socio-economic issues that need to be addressed in order for communities to be able to successfully deal with malaria. It doesn’t start and end only with mosquito nets.

This movie, like most White Savior initiatives, is based on good intentions. However, it fails in its delivery by perpetrating stereotypes and promoting problematic ideas about interactions between the West and Africa. It’s a lot like those “like” and “share” images and videos that float around on social media in that regard. Also, I don’t know if it is coincidental or not that Mary and Martha have the names of biblical sisters.


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