The night of March 5th I watched the Kony 2012 video launched by Invisible Children. I had seen much of the footage before. The LRA and child soldiers are not new news to me. This is something I have been heartbroken over for quite awhile (thus the reason our summer will be spent in Uganda this year) and the fact this war has been going on for as long as I have been alive astonishes me. The video is inspiring. It’s objective is to get young people rah-rah about this cause and it does an excellent job at doing just that. Do I believe that youth around the world can accomplish their “task” to make Joseph Kony a household name and get policy makers to pay more attention to what is happening in central Africa? You bet I do. Kony and the LRA need to be finished once and for all. I am in total agreement with that. I have always been a fan of Invisible Children. I have a sticker on my laptop to prove it. However, as someone who sees herself potentially living in Africa someday and married to a guy who lives and breathes Africa-anything, I had to listen to those who were in opposition to Invisible Children’s movement. And I have to say, there are some really convicting points that humbled me and need to be brought to light.
I believe that Invisible Children is well-intentioned and frankly, I would be more upset if I had watched their documentary years ago and found that they had done nothing despite all they had seen and experienced in Uganda. I am all for drawing attention to the LRA and letting policy makers know we care and don’t want to stand idly by any longer. But here is why I am weary of IC’s strategy:
Oversimplifying the issue: in the video, the founder of IC tells his young son that Kony is a bad guy and he must go. Daddy will work on making sure he is caught. He states, “if we succeed, we change the course of human history.” Such a humble undertaking! Simply, a long socioeconomic and political conflict that has lasted 25+ years and engaged multiple states and actors has been reduced to a story of the good vs bad guy. And if a three-year-old can understand it, so can you. You don’t have to learn anything about the children, Uganda, or Africa. You just have to make calls, put up flyers, sings songs, and you will liberate a poor, forgotten, and invisible people (http://innovateafrica.tumblr.com/). Kony may be the top dog, but he is not alone. Al-Quaeda didn’t stop operating at the death of Bin Laden. Even if all these child soldiers, many of whom are now adults, are freed, I highly doubt they will be innocent angels who will go back to school, settle down and have families. They have been killing, maiming, raping, taking drugs, etc. They are going to have severe mental and developmental issues. They can’t just go back into their communities. Even once Kony is gone, there will still be a huge mess. The awareness of the LRA and the killing of Kony won’t bring healing or sustainability to individuals and communities.
Here come the white people to save us: Again, I would like to state that IC is well-intentioned and so are the people who purchase their posters and t-shirts and stand up for this cause. However, it does have a very Messianic, white-saviour undertone to it all. If Joseph Kony is captured it will be like “YAY! WEdid it! Look at what we did for these people. We changed their lives for them. Thanks Angelina Jolie for your celebrity endorsement!” (Should we really be focusing on celebrities and trendiness over intelligent analysis?)
“I will do anything I can do stop him,” says the founder of Invisible Children to Jacob. WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING OR PEOPLE WILL KEEP DYING! I have totally said this and felt this way. The instinct we have as Westerners to use our resources to help others is a good one. But should we really “do something” without understanding the conflict inside and out? The risk of doing more harm than good is often too high. What if we partnered with the people the conflict actually affects? Where in the video are the Ugandan agencies at work? Where in the video is Jacob’s perspective? Do you think Jacob was ever told that he has strength to overcome his own past and help his people? Or did he need these nice white guys he met to solve his problems for him? What if the founder of IC had just been a listening ear with Jacob in that intense moment where he describes the killing of his brother? He may have been inspired to do something, but nothing that he or his organization can ever do will help Jacob (and kids like him) heal from his experiences . That may sound harsh and even cynically cruel to some, but I think it’s important to recognize that true compassion occurs when we don’t fight or dismiss sadness. I understand that when my friend tells me about something horrible she experienced, I don’t take her problem and try to fix it for her. I encourage her. I love her. I become her number one fan. I don’t fight her battles for her. Wouldn’t that take away her dignity? How is this any different? Well, as Americans we have more resources and money to help! This might be true but…
Where are their homies at?: Invisible Children’s US staff is comprised exclusively of Americans, as is the entire Board. How do you represent Uganda (which isn’t even currently terrorized by the LRA anymore since they’ve moved westward, by the way!) and not have Ugandans in leadership? Couldn’t the organization find a single Ugandan? An African? Did it even think about that? I understand that IC’s main audience is American and its focus is on American action. However, when your work and consequence affect a different group of people than your target audience, you must make it a priority to engage the voices of the affected population in a real and meaningful way (http://innovateafrica.tumblr.com/). I am sure there are society leaders in Africa who have opinions and ideas on how to solve the issues at hand. Everyone in Africa knows about Joseph Kony and the children in his army are certainly not invisible to them. While many Africans can’t gain access to platforms through which to speak to those in power,there is a big difference between claiming to speak for someone “without a voice” and standing alongside those who want to change their own communities. So is IC focused on advocating for Ugandan children or advocating for how they feel about Ugandan children?
I think that Americans have a role to play in this issue and apparently that time is now (10 to 20-ish years late). Invisible Children is getting overwhelmed with support and it isn’t a bad thing but I wish we could let go of the “owner/diver” mentality behind this and instead have a “partner/ally” mentality. Africans raise your voice! Don’t let us drown it out.
**Aaaand if you want to support me financially as I spend the summer doing art therapy workshops in Uganda with formerly abducted ladies, I’d be ever so grateful to you for the opportunity to partner with those beautiful women as they work to heal, build confidence, and prepare to go back to their communities!