A Missionary on Trial | The New Yorker
Kramlich left S.H.C. after less than four months. In her resignation letter, she told the board, “Although Renee is very intelligent, quick to catch on, and unquestionably dedicated and motivated, the fact remains that she has no formal training in the medical practice with which she works every day.” Kramlich added that it seemed “unreasonable, and even dangerous, that an untrained person like Renee should be in a supervisory position.” Nonetheless, she wrote, she was grateful for the experience: “There were so many parts of Serving His Children that were such a blessing to be a part of.”
Kramlich moved back to the United States in 2015. Her concerns might have been forgotten if not for a friend of hers: Kelsey Nielsen, an American social worker who was part of the same insular missionary world in Jinja. In 2018, Nielsen began an influential social-media campaign, called No White Saviors, that took aim at the failings of Western aid in Africa. Bach became her primary target. “Kelsey, she got it in her mind that it had not been dealt with,” Kramlich told me. “She starts up this whole No White Saviors page, and she was going after Renée. I was, like, Oh, boy—buckle up. She’s a very passionate person, even when she’s completely stable.”
“I feel like this is happening at the right time in my life,” Kelsey Nielsen said at a café in Philadelphia, when she was in town visiting her mother, who lives in nearby Collegeville. If she were younger, the success of No White Saviors might have gone to her head, but Nielsen was about to turn thirty, and, after a decade of intermittent work in Uganda, she felt ready to lead a movement that was about issues, not egos. “People come up to us and treat us like we’re celebrities,” she said. “People online, too.” In a year and a half, the campaign has attracted more than three hundred thousand followers. “It’s a lot of human beings. And it’s fast.”
Nielsen lives most of the year in Kampala, where she shares an office with Olivia Patience Alaso, a Ugandan social worker with whom she founded No White Saviors, and Wendy Namatovu, a more recent addition to the team. (They met when Namatovu, who worked at the coffee shop that Nielsen and Alaso frequented, recognized them from their Instagram account and introduced herself.) Their goal is to “decolonize development,” by holding missionaries and humanitarians accountable for the assumption of white supremacy underlying their charity. In Uganda, No White Saviors hosts consciousness-raising workshops. On social media, it chides celebrities for enhancing their reputations by adopting African children, solicits funds for favored causes, and offers inspirational messages. (For Valentine’s Day: “Roses are red, personal boundaries are healthy, ‘justice’ systems protect the white and the wealthy.”) But the Bach story is what has propelled the group to prominence.
As the story broke in the international press, Alaso gave an impassioned interview to Al Jazeera. “People have taken Africa to be an experimental ground where you can come and do anything and walk away,” she said. “If it was a black woman who went to the U.S. or any part of Europe and did this, they will be in jail right now—but, because of the white privilege, this woman is now free.” No White Saviors was subsequently cited by NBC News, “Good Morning America,” and ABC News. The BBC released a video introducing the “founders of the movement,” showing Nielsen, a white woman with reddish hair in a blue Hawaiian shirt, bumping fists with Alaso, a thirty-two-year-old with short hair and an intense stare.
Nielsen first volunteered in Uganda in 2010, at an orphanage called Amani Baby Cottage—the place where Bach had worked two years earlier. Unlike Bach, Nielsen felt alienated by her fellow-missionaries in Jinja. “I had a bit of a different upbringing than a lot of the other white women that end up there,” she said. “I grew up poor—single-parent household, abusive father.”
For years, Nielsen blogged about the mental illness that she inherited from her father, and the ways in which he tore her down. “I did what all good daughters of abusive/absent Fathers do,” she wrote in 2016. “I became a chameleon who could mold into whatever my audience wanted.” When Nielsen was fourteen, her father died. “I went from being a straight-A student to then running away from home for a week at a time,” she told me. “That was like the marker, if you look back, on my bipolar disorder manifesting.”
Ultimately, Nielsen was able to get into Temple University, but needed five years to graduate, because she kept going back to Uganda to volunteer. In the college newspaper, Nielsen described her life in Jinja much as Bach had: “Making trips to the local hospital to pay for a 4-year-old with sickle cell to have a blood transfusion, making home visits to the village.” She’d had malaria three times, but, she told another paper, “I just love loving the Ugandan people. I could get malaria a thousand times and still feel this is where I need to be.”
Though Nielsen didn’t overlap with Bach at Amani, she was well aware of her. To Nielsen, Bach and her friend Katie Davis “were, like, the cool girls of Jinja.” Davis, another missionary, came to Uganda at eighteen, and within five years had become the legal guardian of thirteen Ugandan girls, whom she wrote about in her best-selling memoir “Kisses from Katie.” Nielsen said, “Honestly, I remember wanting to be friends with Katie and Renée. They’re the cool, young missionaries, starting their own N.G.O.s, adopting children.” She recalled a New Year’s Eve party at Bach’s house in 2011: “All white people and their adopted black children.”
Nielsen described her feelings toward Bach and Davis as simultaneously envious and disdainful. “I always thought that I was a little bit better than them, because I actually went to school for what I was doing,” she said. Nielsen started her own N.G.O. in 2013, with a fellow-missionary she’d met at Amani. They called it Abide, and they sought to encourage impoverished families not to relinquish their children to orphanages, by giving parenting classes and helping them pay living expenses. (Nielsen thinks of herself now as a “white savior in recovery.”)
Toward the end of 2013, a sick child named Sharifu stayed for several months in Abide’s emergency housing. Nielsen posted pictures of him on Facebook, and Bach, noticing them, remembered that he had been treated at S.H.C. that spring. “We have a huge medical and history file on him,” Bach wrote to Nielsen. “I can have someone get that to you.” She added, with a frowny-face emoji, “It’s super sad we live in the same town but never get to see each other.” Nielsen sent a friendly reply: “We really need to fix the lack of hanging—coffee or breakfast?” She went on to say that Abide was also hosting Sharifu’s grandmother, and training her in “parenting/attachment development.” If that didn’t work, they would have to consider having Sharifu adopted—his father, she said, posed a risk to his safety.
Nielsen told Bach that one of her social workers would follow up with Bach’s employees, but no one did. Sharifu got sicker, and Nielsen and her colleagues took him to a hospital in Kampala, where he was given a diagnosis of heart problems. “They started raising money online, because they couldn’t get him discharged without paying the bill,” Bach recalled. She told Nielsen that S.H.C. would cover the shortfall. “I literally met her on the side of the road one day and handed over the money, and Kelsey was, like, ‘Thanks, see ya,’ ” she said. “Then they made this social-media post that they had gone to see his cardiologist and that it was like this miracle: he’s healed! And that night the kid just died. Then I started seeing her around town, and she would just look like she was going to kill me.”