Another Hero Story: CNN’s “Mozambique or Bust” Documentary

A story about “how ordinary people come together to do something extraordinary,” this is how the Actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking, Mira Sorvino, 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” (now online; part 1 above) 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.

Here’s part 2:

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.


8 thoughts on “Another Hero Story: CNN’s “Mozambique or Bust” Documentary

  1. Fantastic achievement for those that have been trafficked and the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be achieved; it takes a lot of heartache & passion to make it happen; congratulations to all involved. We’re hope that our project can be as sucessful in West Africa for trafficked children!

      • No, not ignoring the valid criticisms (I did write the other comment in haste) & don’t agree with the ‘feelgood’ factor but from the point of view of trafficking victims & doing something to help them; it is the tip of the iceberg.

        Advocacy against trafficking is all fine & good, but little is done to assist many victims, however I don’t fully believe this project is the right way to go about it. Sustainability for the women is the crux of the matter, sustainability for all victims of trafficking is vital to ensure their futures. Treating everyone with the same respect is giving empowerment to the victims; this was sadly lacking!

        But as you so rightly put it, is it the camera playing the story to millions of CNN viewers with their ‘glossy’ version of events? I would hope that there is more awareness spread about trafficking with this film (& I don’t mean for everyone to empty their bra drawer!). So much more needs to be done to ensure that trafficking victims (in whatever shape or form) get the chance to start their lives again on a level playing field with their peers.

        There isn’t a centre we know about in the W.African sub-region that works solely with trafficked children, hence my mention of tip of the iceberg & ‘just’ advocacy. There is so much noise about child victims in W.Africa but there isn’t a centre that caters ‘solely’ for them! We’re trying to accomplish this with child trafficking victims, many who won’t have had any education. Our centre will be managed & run by local Ivorians & the children will be leaving with a minimum of vocational skills giving them sustainability for the future.

  2. I really enjoyed your article, and I totally agree with you. Doing good things for others is noble indeed. However, in this context it creates dependency and unsustainability, and perpetuates the humanitarian/colonial mindset. It just makes me sick.

  3. I watched this recently, and I had the same thoughts! More than anything, it was the sanctimonious attitude of the “saviours”. I have been to Mozambique, it is one of my favourite places in the word. I love the breathtaking landscape. I love the people, how awesome and much warmer and helpful they are than my own countrymen in South Africa. I especially love the women; beautiful, present, so damn sexy and unapologetic about it. I’ve always thought it might be the difference between being colonised by frigid and cold Brittania as opposed to the more flamboyant Portuguese. Either way they know what they’ve got and they know how to work it. Where was this Mozambique that I know and love? It became a flattened landscape against which some random dude could come and act out his heroism fantasies. And worst of all where were the people? You know, the reason he moved there? Where were the vivacious and flashy women of character I always encountered. Instead, the typical African In Need, waiting to be saved by a man (almost always a man, the women mostly go for chips and the like) from the West. Head bowed, no life, no character. The limp lifeless dolls they show us, nothing to be said about the strength it took to get out of sex trade – after all, the “saviour” isn’t the one who actually SAVED them, he’s actually just the follow up act to the main drama of how these women escaped that terrible life – just how oh so grateful, grateful, they are for this shipment of discarded underthings.

    I too was disturbed by the constant references to these “girs” (especially after the history of belittlement of our men and women in Southern Africa), most of whom turned out to be fully fledged women, mothers…)

    Oh why do I subject myself? And get so angry about these meaningful little stories of triumph of the human spirit? Perhaps because there’s aways a little voice that asks ” ok, you felt like being a hero. And instead of crossing oceans to subject the Africans to your heroism, you didn’t think to look around at home. At the desperation, the desolation in neighbourhoods just around the corner from you. The people kicked out of their houses living on the streets, the children lost to gangsterism and violence, and yes, the overwhelming number of slaves, sex and otherwise, being shipped into the US daily. Where`s your heroism for these people? Or is it still the Africans that need to be saved?

    If we’re going to base our do-good-ness on flattened media representation then I might just pack my bags and move to the US to go and save me some souls too. I’ve watched The Wire so I know at least the people of Baltimore must be waiting with their heads bowed for me to swoop in and save the day.

  4. I love this article and the aware it brings.
    I do not like the name of this website: Africa is not a country, it is a continent. Folks are still sperimposing the American continental map over that of Africa. This confusion has to stop.

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