What my grandmother taught me about White Saviours

On Agency Director Simone La Corbinière shares her personal view on the lessons she learnt from her grandmother who worked as a Nursing Superintendent at the St Lucia branch of the British Red Cross.

Looking at this picture of my grandmother (centre in the boldly patterned skirt) alongside some of her fellow nursing students in early 1950s London, I’m always struck by what a perfect snapshot it is of a diverse group of determined women gaining skills they could take back to their communities, communities which, for the women of colour in the photograph certainly, were thousands of miles away.

In her forties by this point, my grandmother, Nen as we called her in the family, was already a strong, capable single mother (in a majority Catholic society that stigmatized unwed mothers, she would go on to adopt another child) and accomplished singer. In 1945, when Sir Edward Twining commissioned a performance in St Lucia of Gluck’s grand opera, Nen had sung the part of Orpheus. A natural feminist, well educated and intelligent, Nen was a thinker as well as a doer. She identified problems and their solutions – and then took the practical steps herself to make change happen.

As a nurse and midwife, Nen had already become famous throughout the island for riding out on her beloved horse to deliver babies.

Cars were useless in the rainforest, where people lived in scattered dwellings throughout the bush. Even where there were roads to small towns and villages, these could quickly become impassable by car in a sudden tropical downpour. So this tiny, authoritative, young-looking woman would saddle-up every day and ride out on her horse, Suzy, to visit women in out of the way villages, delivering babies as well as providing pre- and post-natal care. Nen delivered so many babies that her daughter, my Aunty Sybil, tells me there was a joke at one point that “she delivered St Lucia”. Indeed, the priest at Aunty Sybil’s wedding shared with her the fact that he, along with most of his siblings, had been delivered by Nen – or “Nursie” to the children she had helped into the world.

So this is what brought Nen to London, to further her medical knowledge; on her return to St Lucia, she would be made First Lady Health Visitor. Looking at the photo, I imagine how she might have adapted the lessons in real time in her head, to suit the particular challenges in St Lucia at the time – a tropical climate, little refrigeration, lack of roads and infrastructure, as well as families who spoke no English, only Kwéyòl, a language entirely unknown outside the Caribbean.

And the people that Mrs Gage met (Nen had by now married a dashing, young Jamaican executive in the Department of Agriculture who couldn’t be persuaded by her to look for a younger bride, one without children) always stayed with her. When a recipe booklet was compiled, commissioned by the Ministry of Education & Health, it was dedicated to:

‘The many St Lucian Women whom over the past years have requested easily prepared nutritious recipes utilizing Local Produce.”

Mrs Gage made frequent trips around the island as First Lady Health Visitor. Here she is with her colleague Miss Williamson outside the Health Centre.

The last time I saw Nen, some six months before her death at the age of 92, she told me of an exhausted, depleted mother she had met half a century earlier who had eleven children, whose twelfth baby had just died during birth. The thought that came to her at the time, she told me, was: “Praise the Lord”. Back then, Nen didn’t see a way for this woman and her husband, who lived in abject poverty, to support another child – they didn’t have the physical, emotional, mental or material resources left to do so. Deeply religious, and seemingly at odds with her daily work to save lives, Nen believed to her dying day that God took the baby to Heaven to spare the child and the parents from further suffering.

As comfortable fundraising among wealthy elites or schmoozing at cocktail parties at Government House as she was rolling up her sleeves in the Health Centre, Nen became Nursing Superintendent at the St Lucia branch of the British Red Cross and was awarded a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 1964 for her work.

It’s interesting now, with more than half a century’s hindsight, to look back on all that the British Red Cross got right. Would a ‘white saviour’ have known to ride out to the middle of the bush to find a family in a single shack? At the very least, gaps in local knowledge would slow down help as charities seek to learn the intricacies of every community they want to help.

Mrs Gage at work in her role as Nursing Superintendent at the St Lucia branch of the British Red Cross.

After retiring from the Health Centre, Nen continued to work tirelessly for children and mothers – now for the Save the Children Fund. She had a strong empathy for women with multiple children from different fathers, seeing clearly how circumstances forced single mothers to seek out help and protection from another man, with whom they would also become pregnant and then, if the second man left, to seek help from another man, thus continuing the cycle.

Nen worked with these mothers to tap into their skills and craftsmanship, producing wares they could sell at market and so become financially independent. At the same time, she found overseas donors to sponsor the children’s education, a model familiar to those working in international development.  Many of these children would be supported right through university overseas, often Canada, and would then return to St Lucia to help develop their communities.

As is so often the case, Nen’s contributions and achievements were often overshadowed by the more visible, and certainly more widely reported, work of the men, including those in our family. But at Nen’s funeral, where nurses lined up in uniform by her coffin as a Guard of Honour, I heard stories of how she had inspired generations of St Lucian girls and women to go into nursing.

Perhaps an even more pertinent question would therefore be: would sending foreign nurses – ‘white saviours’ – into St Lucia have inspired people in the same way?

Perpetuating an image of foreign outsiders coming in to save communities can do lasting harm by depriving those communities of visible role models they need to inspire lasting change. Perhaps the young women needed to see Nen in charge at the Health Centre, or hear tales of Mrs Gage and Suzy riding through the bush in the rain, to inspire them to study to become nurses themselves.

Even in fundraising this holds true. ‘Lift letters’ from people at the coalface are extremely successful in raising funds in direct mail packs; charity donors certainly seem to appreciate hearing first hand from the people working in their communities. Why do we think celebrities are needed when we can hear and see powerful first-hand accounts of local doctors, nurses or veterinarians, for example? This isn’t to say celebrities shouldn’t ever be used – but that they should be welcomed for their endorsement on the basis of their expertise and empathy, rather than for their celebrity.

When visiting St Lucia for Nen’s funeral, my (White British) husband was rather taken aback when myself and my brother, as brown as we are, were referred to as ‘white people’ – the term denoting that we were now foreign outsiders, having lived away for over twenty years. In this context, I wasn’t offended – it was an expression of the undeniable truth that, no matter how St Lucian I still look, I was no longer a part of St Lucia. It was neither meant, nor taken, as an insult.

After Nen’s death, when we gave a portion of her estate to charity, we didn’t research organisations working in St Lucia, or read charity annual reviews. We left the choice to Nen’s closest friends, including an indefatigable local lady from a very well off family, who worked tirelessly alongside local nuns for decades to help the very poorest of her fellow St Lucians.

She’s as white as I am brown, but no ‘white saviour’ she.

ABOVE: Mrs  Gage, aged 75, during the Queen’s visit to St Lucia, 1985.

LEFT: Olga Gage (née Pierre) in her forties.

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