African voices respond to hyper-popular Kony 2012 viral campaign
(Updated with additions, March 10, 2012. Here’s a Twitter list, so you can follow all of the African writers mentioned in this post who are on Twitter.)
The internets are all a-flutter with reactions to Kony 2012, a high-velocity viral fundraising campaign created by the “rebel soul dream evangelists” at Invisible Children to “raise awareness” about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and child soldiers. As noted in my previous post here on Boing Boing, the project has many critics. There is a drinking game, there are epic lolpictorials, and a chorus of idiots on Facebook.
There are indications the project may be about stealth-evangelizing Christianity. The Invisible Children filmmakers have responded to some of the criticism. Media personalities and celebrities are duking it out as the campaign (and now, backlash) spreads.
But in that flood of attention, one set of voices has gone largely ignored: Africans themselves. Writers, journalists, activists; people of African descent who live and work and think about life on the continent. In this post, we’ll round up some of their replies to #Kony2012.
• Above, a video by Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan multimedia journalist who works on “media, women, peace and conflict issues.” She writes, “This is me talking about the danger of portraying people with one single story and using old footage to cause hysteria when it could have been possible to get to DRC and other affected countries get a fresh perspective and also include other actors.”
• Ethiopian writer and activist Solome Lemma writes that she is disturbed by the “dis-empowering and reductive narrative” evidenced in Invisible Children’s promotional videos: “[It] paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will, or power. It calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering. Well, this is a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of child and youth advocates who have been fighting to address the very issues at the heart of IC’s work.” Update: Here’s another from Lemma on “Seven steps for critical reflection.” She urges those concerned about human rights in Africa to “think before you give.”
• Musa Okwonga, a ” football writer, poet and musician of Ugandan descent,” writes in an Independent op-ed: “I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism. I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots… Watching the video, though, I was concerned at the simplicity of the approach that Invisible Children seemed to have taken.”
• Award-winning Nigerian-American novelist and photographer Teju Cole published an inspired set of tweets today on sentimentality toward Africa by Americans. Ethan Zuckerman gathered them here, and Alexis Madrigal did the same here. “From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex,” Cole writes. “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” He is brilliant and you should be following him on Twitter, anyway.
• Angelo Opi-aiya Izama, a journalist and researcher based in Kampala, Uganda, writes: “The simplicity of the ‘good versus evil,’ where good is inevitably white/western and bad is black or African, is also reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the colonial era interventions. These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.”
• Benin-born “Author and Africa Enthusiast” Mafoya Dossoumon focuses less on the shortcomings of “Invisible Children,” and more on the power elite within Africa. “I urge you my African brothers and sisters, and friends of Africa to direct more energy towards holding our leaders accountable. Our leaders have failed us! ”
• TMS Ruge, the Ugandan-born co-founder of Project Diaspora is pissed. He says he wants to “bang my head against my desk” to “make the dumb-assery stop.” writes, “It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes. We, Africans, are sandwiched between our historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence. To be properly heard, we must ride the coattails of self-righteous idiocy train. Even then, we have to fight for our voices to be respected.” Update: Ruge has a commentary in the New York Times: “‘Kony 2012’ Is Not a Revolution.”
• Semhar Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), is based in Minneapolis and is of Eritrean descent. DAWN “develops and supports talented women and girls of the African diaspora,” and is focused on African affairs. In an opinion piece at the Christian Science Monitor titled “Learn to Respect Africans,” Araia writes of Invisible Children: “They must be willing to use their media to amplify African voices, not simply their own. This isn’t about them.”
• At National Geographic, a guest essay by Anywar Ricky Richard, a former child soldier of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and director of the northern Ugandan organization Friends of Orphans. Richard writes of perceptions of Invisible Children in northern Uganda, where the group has had a presence for some years, “They are not known as a peace building organization and I do not think they have experience with peace building and conflict resolution methods. I totally disagree with their approach of military action as a means to end this conflict.”
• Dayo Olopade, a Nigerian-American journalist who is writing a book on the connection between disruptive technology and African development, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times: “The mundane march of progress in poor countries is what ‘awareness’ campaigns often miss. And when, as in this case, success is determined by action from outside the region, cries of a new imperialism should be taken seriously. Few international NGOs working in Africa define success properly — as putting themselves out of business. Invisible Children seems no better.”
• London-based Ida Horner “grew up in Idi Amin’s Uganda,” and says the first 20 years of her life were “marked by civil wars.” She now consults to companies that want to ethically source products from East Africa, and writes and speaks about sustainable development and issues affecting African women in poverty. Among her concerns: how will Kony 2012 fever affect tourism income, and investment, which she sees as a better solution than aid? “Uganda was voted by Lonely Planet amongst the top destinations for 2012 but has this NGO just undone the potential for Uganda’s tourism? After all the tourism industry provides a real opportunity for Ugandans to work their way out of poverty through providing services that tourists want to consume.”
• Kampala-based “Poet, Artist, and Computer Engineer” Frank Odongka published a poem about Invisible Children, titled ” Mocking a Mocking Bird.” In an intro, he writes about how he felt immediately after seeing the video: “I was only filled with emptiness. I felt our past was being used by some external figure to attract attention to their cause; which cause is obviously not a better life for my relatives. In 2000, travelling to Kampala from the West Nile was suicide and Invisible Children didn’t realize we were invisible and holed up there. Today, more than ever, we are visible but someone suddenly feels the need to exploit our past and paint it as our present! I wrote this poem, short as it is, to reflect how I feel about it.”
• “Let’s call Joseph Kony what he is: a narcissist, a pedophile and a terrorist,” writes Ghanaian-American blogger Malaka Gyekye Grant in a post titled Joseph Kony Is Still At Large and It’s all My Fault. “Why are we not speaking out until our voices are impossible to ignore? Here’s a better question: Why did an AFRICAN not start the Kony2012 campaign?”
• Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu, at the conflict journal Warscapes: “If there is one thing Invisible Children is right about, it’s that ignorance is blinding. Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets. We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now. ”
• Former LRA abductee turned peacekeeper Victor Ochen is a social entrepreneur and peace builder in Uganda who founded The African Youth Initiative Network. They work to physically and psychologically rehabilitate youth affected by war. He writes at AYINET’s blog: “I agree that Kony must be stopped as soon as possible. However, it must be done in a way that avoids further civilian casualties and the loss of the lives of innocent children. Raising potentially false expectation such as arresting Kony in 2012 will not rebuild the lives of the people in northern Uganda. Rebuilding communities and rehabilitating victims is what we need. The stronger survivors become, the less Kony remains an issue. Restoration of communities devastated by Kony is a greater priority than catching or even killing him.”
• The Guardian has published an interview with Jacob Acaye, the Ugandan former child abductee featured in the “Kony 2012″ video. Acaye is now a 21-year-old law student in Kampala. He says the filmmakers wandered into a village where he and other children sought refuge; the Invisible Children representatives were looking for a child who spoke English, to feature in their film. “They could not understand what was happening. They wanted a kid who was sleeping there and who spoke English,” Acaye said. “I could understand English and I could say what was happening, so that is how I was in their film.”
• Ethan Zuckerman is not African, but the Global Voices co-founder has done much work over the years to create platforms and networks that amplify voices from the continent, and promote thoughtful, informed dialogue on complicated issues like this one. Ethan has a great roundup of links from various African voices. And Global Voices contributor Rebekah Heacock has an extensive post here, which gathers opinions from the African blog-o-/twitter-o-sphere.