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"Savior Complex" explores the dark side of an infamous Christian missionary in Uganda
105 kids died at a non-profit run by Renée Bach, a Christian missionary with no formal medical training. But she's not the only problem.
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When Renée Bach turned 19, the homeschooled Virginian went to Uganda and decided to treat malnourished children. She formed a non-profit called Serving His Children using money raised from her church. That money also covered a lot of the medicine and supplies a hospital might need to help those same kids.
But Bach had no formal medical training. She just believed God would guide her as she practiced on unwitting subjects who needed serious help. Even if other trained professionals were nearby (or working with her), she would perform roles meant for a qualified nurse, not a random Christian running on good intentions.
105 children eventually died under her group’s watch.
In 2019, two mothers whose kids died sued Bach for misrepresenting herself and her “clinic” as a legitimate medical facility, stocked with properly trained staff. As a New Yorker article noted, Bach certainly played the role despite her lack of credentials:
A gardener who worked there for three years asserts that Bach posed as a doctor: “She dressed in a clinical coat, often had a stethoscope around her neck, and on a daily basis I would see her medicating children.” An American nurse who volunteered at S.H.C. states that Bach “felt God would tell her what to do for a child.” A Ugandan driver says that, for eight years, “on average I would drive at least seven to ten dead bodies of children back to their villages each week.”
Indeed, Bach would insert I.V.s into children and prescribe medication. She also performed at least one blood transfusion. There are aspects of medical care that can be taught to anyone. But to have a layperson do all that is highly unethical; it also creates potential problems when things don’t go as expected. Even in emergency situations, attempting those procedures may make the problems worse. (What do you do, though, when the actual medical facilities nearby don’t have the tools they need to help their patients?)
The lawyer representing those mothers made it clear that to let Bach escape without punishment would be a clear double standard:
These families deserve justice, [attorney Primah Kwagala] says. And there's a larger principle at stake: Imagine, says Kwagala, if a 20-something Ugandan woman had gone to the U.S. and set up an equivalent arrangement to treat impoverished American children.
"She would have been prosecuted. She would have been behind bars," says Kwagala.
In the U.S., says Kwagala, "I don't think she would have lasted two hours."
The entire controversy raised so many questions about the role of Christian missionaries, whether Bach’s actions hinged on racism or a desire to overcome racism, the notion of “white saviors,” the dark side of “voluntourism,” and how Uganda could allow someone like her to care for children without a medical license.
Those issues are all front and center in a new three-part HBO docuseries called Savior Complex, which just premiered last week.
Director Jackie Jesko was able to get remarkable access to Bach, her family, the staffers who worked at her makeshift “clinic,” the “No White Saviors” leaders who publicized Bach’s actions, several Ugandans with varied views on Bach, and many others. The end result is a nuanced portrayal of what Bach did and how much blame she deserves for what happened.
Without offering spoilers here, it was already known that Bach’s operations weren’t as clear-cut awful as they seemed. While she may have misled people, there was relatively little evidence of actual direct wrongdoing on her part, which made any legal case against her much harder to prosecute. Furthermore, many of the children who died in her care may well have died without her intervention, as Brian Tallerico explains at RogerEbert.com:
Bach and her team, including her mother, argue that 105 children died at SHC, with a mortality rate of 11%. Over the same period, the nearby children’s hospital had a mortality rate of 14%. However, these numbers simply can’t tell the whole story. If Bach had listened more than acted, could her number have been under 10%? If so, aren’t those lives valuable? However, if Bach hadn’t been there, could that number have been doubled?
That’s not to say she should be let off the hook, but it would be unfair to pin the blame on her alone for all the deaths. So many people had the opportunity to stop her from playing doctor, including the Christians who donated to her cause without asking relevant questions. But they were inspired by her mission. Also, there was no adequate system of checks in Uganda to prevent someone like her from just stepping in to fill necessarily gaps in health coverage.
Meanwhile, Bach and the “No White Saviors” group trying to stop Bach were both playing a social media game to amplify their respective messages. Bach acted like she was a solo operation in order to tell a more powerful story and receive more donations; the NWS leaders acted like Bach was the Devil incarnate, leading to wild exaggerations and a very one-sided view of what was happening. As Sam Adams wrote in Slate, “The idea that [No White Saviors’ Kelsey] Nielsen couldn’t possibly have done something good without documenting it on social media is staggering both in its presumptuousness and its apparent accuracy. And Bach, who detailed her work in a string of blog posts, seems no different.” (The end of the third episode touches on the chaos that later enveloped the No White Saviors organization.)
The only person who appears to come out of the documentary unscathed is Jackie Kramlich, a fellow Christian who felt moved to join Bach in Uganda in 2011. Unlike Bach, Kramlich was a registered nurse, which is why it didn’t take long for her to recognize how messed up the whole situation was. She noted in an affidavit that Bach would sometimes tell the professionals what to do. Kramlich left the organization after four months, writing a resignation to the group’s board of directors that went nowhere… mostly because the “board” primarily consisted of Bach’s friends and family members. (In that sense, it’s no different from churches that fail to hold a pastor accountable for his actions because the elders are too closely linked to him.)
I will say that I had already known large parts of this story, having covered it and read about it over the years. Yet seeing the main characters tell their stories made everything that much more compelling. The series comes at a time when many Christian leaders are finally being held responsible for their bad behavior, yet Bach (for reasons explained in the series) isn’t in jail and hasn’t really suffered any consequences for what she did.
She’s raising her children in a small Christian town. She’s far, far away from all the chaos and misery she caused.
On a side note, I appreciate the fact that a series like this one and Prime Video’s Shiny Happy People (about the Duggars and their religion) are now reaching mainstream audiences. There’s an audience eager to hear fair criticism of faith-based beliefs. And when you watch these shows, it’s hard to come away with more sympathy for these people who believe their religion gives them the freedom to cause immeasurable harm to others.
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