“It’s not a bad thing that we wish to do good in the world. But it’s hard work to know what is good.” – Nigerian-American author Teju Cole
Over the past couple of days, I have been following the “Kony 2012” campaign with interest. The “Kony 2012” campaign was initiated by the American non-profit named Invisible Children and has gained particular prominence through the release of their 30-minute advocacy video. This emotion-driven video has certainly engaged and motivated an enormous audience, both in North America and around the world. I have watched this phenomenon with a great deal of consternation, frustration and (eventually) hope. “Kony2012” is a revelation in marketing for NGOs working around the world. I don’t want to get stuck explaining why I believe this campaign is misinformed and potentially dangerous, because others have articulated this much more coherently than I ever could.
I just want to share a few thoughts on the campaign’s narrative, which has prompted me to write a disclaimer for our blog.
The narrative that has emerged from Invisible Children’s well-intentioned call to arms is both oversimplified and paternalistic. It focuses on an evil (black) man, who can only be defeated by social media savvy (mainly white) North Americans. It promotes a North American-based solution to a decades long conflict in Central Africa.
Simple narratives have a tendency to provoke simple solutions, particularly when the narratives are about ‘Africa’ and marketed by and to North Americans. These North American driven narratives/solutions tend to forget to identify agency in those most deeply affected. In the case of Kony 2012, which demands action by North Americans, the agency of those most deeply affected (the local communities) has been forgotten.
Northern Uganda (and the region currently being deeply affected by the LRA) are complex environments full of people and organizations. These people and organizations are not being empowered to seek the solutions they desire, even though they are the most affected. It has been assumed that a North American solution to the problem (namely military action) would be most effective. This solution is probably not the one most broadly supported by people living in the region, since the LRA is largely comprised of abducted children from families and communities who seek their return. For this reason we ought to at least examine this campaign critically.
A couple of questions for reflection: What role do the local communities have in the action being taken to “bring Kony to justice”? How does the narrative promoted by Invisible Children help local Ugandans, Congolese, Central Africans, and Sudanese? Would local people support the military action promoted in the video? Can a protracted conflict affecting real people in real communities be solved by purchasing an action kit or by wearing a wristband? Do North Americans have any right or responsibility to ‘solve’ problems in Africa? Or are we perpetuating a mindset that we are blessed with the ability to solve the world’s problems?
This criticism does present a bit of a problem for Suzanne and myself, as North Americans living and working in Southern Africa. We clearly believe that there is a role for North Americans to address global issues, even in places as diverse and complex as ‘Africa.’ Our hope is that our work will be directed at empowering local people and organizations to address the many problems faced here. But, even with this as our stated purpose I would encourage you (loyal reader) to critically examine the narrative that we will produce on this blog. Suzanne and I will be sharing our views and experiences about living and working as development workers in Southern Africa. It is important to remember that we are always sharing our views. While we will try to contextualize and present things as we see and experience them, we will not be free from our own biases and shortcomings. The situations we will likely write about for the next few years will inevitably be more complex than we can even imagine, let alone capture in semi-regular (fingers-crossed) 400 word posts. So please, when reading our meager postings, remember to give us some grace for our foibles and shortcomings, and then ask us questions and give us critical feedback. We will always be presenting a narrative and that narrative ought to reflect the reality of our context, and so should never be simple, straightforward and easily solvable.
My Brief Experience in Northern Uganda
For what its worth, I will share my own (brief) experience of Northern Uganda. In September 2010 I spent a short time visiting Mennonite Central Committee projects in and around Lira and Soroti.
Northern Uganda, as I experienced it, is no longer terrorized by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as they have been chased out of the country and are currently hiding in the DR Congo and in the Central African Republic. This is not to jump to the conclusion that Uganda is now ‘at peace.’ Northern Uganda is still being repopulated as people are moving home, which has given rise to many land disputes. Pressing issues now include reintegrating the formerly-abducted and LRA combatants, providing support to children suffering from “Nodding Disease,” and HIV/AIDS.
The MCC-supported projects I visited in Northern Uganda predominantly focused on these three issues. MCC supports organizations like the Concerned Parents Association which has mobilized many women (and some men) who have taken it upon themselves to mediate interpersonal conflicts, care for formerly-abducted children, support those afflicted by nodding disease, and seek reconciliation with former LRA commandants, while also finding time to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. It is these local organizations, which are not simply working for peace but actually waging peace daily, that deserve our recognition and support. Organizations like CPA do not do the work they do because North Americans support them, but because it is work that must be done. I believe it is important to support these organizations, which are driven by those most affected, who have been working as agents of change for a long time, and will continue to do this work even as our attention drifts elsewhere.