Kony 2012: How Not to Talk About Africa

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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."

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.


Cynical, I'm aware, but when giving to organizations such as Invisible Children one must question their method and purpose. And beyond the aesthetics, viewers should have serious concerns about the organization's policy goals:

1. Why just Kony?

Joseph Kony, self-proclaimed messenger of God and strongman ruler of the theocratic Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), is almost universally condemned for his crimes against humanity. But what about Kony's closest allies, also wanted by the ICC? Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo (possibly deceased), Dominic Ongwen and Raska Lukwiya deserve equal condemnation and arrest. But again, oversimplicity is better for film. The organization practically asks you to assume the intelligence of Russell's child, diminishing a multi-state, multi-agent conflict that has lasted for over a quarter of a century into a cheap crime thriller.

2. Why American Intervention?

Invisible Children, to the credit of its perseverance and not necessarily its goal, successfully lobbied the Obama administration into sending a small task force of advisers to Uganda. The film makes no mention of alternatives - is the Ugandan government not capable of pursuing the former despotic resistance leaders? Did the organization make any appeal to the African Union (their Peace and Security Council declared the LRA a terrorist group in 2011)? Do Ugandans want Americans intervening in their domestic affairs? Again, Western solutions for African problems - pity paternalism and no recognition that Ugandans are perhaps capable of running their own nation.

3. What's the end game?

Bringing Joseph Kony to The Hague would be an incredible, if belated and fractional, expression of justice. But what then? Is the purpose of Invisible Children simply to bring Kony to trial? If so, I dare say this is somewhat shallow. The film provides almost zero historical perspective on Uganda, discusses neither the struggles associated with recent economic growth nor the prevalence of Nodding disease, currently a far greater threat than the LRA. Context, indeed, risks undermining the emotional effect of the message. Are we interested in significantly improving the quality of life in Uganda? If so, perhaps NGO and charity work should be focused elsewhere. Some African thinkers - Dead Aid author Dambisa Moyo comes to mind - might even argue the best approach from the West would be none at all.

The average American citizen need not be criticized for lacking an in-depth knowledge of Ugandan history and politics. But when giving money to an organization that intends to intervene in the domestic affairs of a foreign nation, one must carry a healthy dose of cynicism before becoming an overnight activist. The wave of backlash to Invisible Children's efforts - notably by an abundance of Ugandan writers and commentators such as former child soldier Anywar Ricky Richard and Project Diaspora co-founder TMS Ruge - reflects the inherent historical ironies of an all-white council attempting to solve the problems of a complex African nation.

Wainaina ends his satirical essay with the following: "Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows and renaissances. Because you care." I'll follow suit: "If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don't ask for observers from Africa or Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers."

The paradox of post-colonial paternalism could not be expressed any better.

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