Kony 2012: How Not to Talk About Africa

By Miles Kellerman

In 2005, the meritorious Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina published a satirical essay entitled, "How to Write About Africa." Among numerous suggestions, Wainaina stresses the following: "Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa ... Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated." And with much sting, "Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed."

From the earliest of colonial interventions to the charitable rhetoric of modern paternalism, an endemic of pity has plagued Western attitudes toward African culture. Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to alleviate Africans of their sins against the true god; British and French colonial magistrates actually claimed to be doing their slaves a favour by introducing "culture." And, indeed, Invisible Children's recent short film on African warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, Kony 2012, exemplifies the post-colonial sense of responsibility within the Western conscious for that dark, uniform continent. Perhaps Nigerian author Teju Cole summed the matter best in his recent tweet: "the fastest growth industry in the U.S. is the White Saviour Industrial Complex."

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It's not that Jason Russell and the staff of Invisible Children don't deserve credit for their industry. They undoubtedly exemplify a commitment to the subject, a laudable desire to see Joseph Kony in the International Criminal Court and, of course, are talented filmmakers. But therein lies the rub. Kony 2012 is an emotional charlatan of a film; it drastically oversimplifies the conflict, isolates a sole villain and plays to the emotional sense of responsibility in the viewer. One can't help but recall Wainaina's ironic suggestion, "Your hero is you (if reportage)" when watching Russell's son proclaim: "Daddy I want to be like you when I grow up."

Indeed Russell, his American staff and, with the purchase of a Kony 2012 ‘Action Kit,' perhaps even you are the heroes in this story. For despite the positive intentions of the group and its newfound supporters, there exists a tragic narcissism in the notion that Ugandans are helpless, dis-empowered and in need of our help. Rules of the Wainaina guide: "Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African ... Taboo subjects: references to African writers and intellectuals." Viewers should have an acute awareness of whose voice we hear in the video, the lack of commentary from Ugandans and the overwhelming portrayal of the country as a war-ridden, failed state.

Admittedly, Invisible Children is an American organization attempting to influence American policy. Yet - and again the subconscious narcissism - the film portrays Ugandans as powerless victims in need of the donations of liberal college students. As Ethiopian activist Solome Lemma poignantly asked, "Invisible to whom?" One can safely assume the tens of thousands of child soldiers Kony abducted over a 25-year period are quite discernible to their parents, and the film makes no mention of grassroots efforts in Uganda like the ‘Concerned Parents Association.' Ergo, even in the title of the organization we have inherent vanity. The invisibility, like the vantage point of the camera, is decidedly Western.

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Miles Kellerman is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, temporarily at the University of Sydney in Australia studying international security studies and South East Asian geopolitics.

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