This is a long one.....and has two parts. The first is a, somewhat stream-of consciousness (she did much better than usual) set of thoughts by our Founder and Director, Kate von Achen. The second part is a bit from our Assistant Country Director in Uganda, Darlyne Komukama, and her reaction to watching the Kony 2012 video with some of our tailors.
I have been receiving requests since before watching the Invisible Children's (IC) Kony 2012 video, for comment, asking how the video made me feel, and how the video made the women we work with, part of the affected population, feel, and I have continued saying that I need to take a step back and not be reactionary in my response. Thus far my response has been re-posting the reactions of various others, from various backgrounds, but all with varied expertise into the history and background of the 25+ year conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. And as I read more, and observe and have continued dialogue with friends and colleagues about the topic, I find myself even more unsure as to what my response is. I find more questions being raised as to the after-effect for many as a result of this campaign and everything that has come to light because of this campaign.
I should also preface all of this by saying that by nature, I am an activist. I am opinionated. I am passionate about the things and people I care about. I like to play devils advocate, and I am also frequently skeptical of surface intentions (my father has referred to me, more than once, as a conspiracy theorist, though that was more when I was younger, more ignorant, more quick to react--before the days when I was willing to first take a step back).
I have been following IC for some time, and there is one thing that I will commend them for, and that is bringing international attention to the conflict with the LRA. In fact, if I remember correctly, they, along with the university club KU for Uganda, brought my attention to the LRA during my undergrad at University of Kansas. The first KU for Uganda event I attended was a screening of IC's first video. My course of study was Political Science with a focus on Women in Africa and none of my classes had yet gotten to this topic of Uganda. Everyone was still fixated on Rwanda and South Africa (important histories to be examined and learned from, no doubt). But IC's first video, which subsequently made it to Oprah, did a great job of bringing the topic to the eyes of a population who, at least until now, would likely not known about it. For this I commend them. Sadly, this is where my support stops.
With eyes looking at the target, IC has never taken the attention harnessed by their first video tour campaign (and Displace Me events,which I attended in Kansas City in 2007, after my first trip to Gulu, Uganda, with friends) to educate the population as to the history and intricacies of the conflict with Joseph Kony and the LRA. What I have seen them do is spend a lot of money to create flashy campaigns that don't really give any information other than Joseph Kony bad, IC good, let's stop him! This troubles me.
Flashing back to my activist nature, I used to join any lefty campaign and take it as my cause, and I remember my mother saying to me, "Kate, you have to pick your causes". My parents, "activists" often finding themselves on different places within the political spectrum, explained to me that it is important to pick one, maybe two causes you're passionate about, and to be educated in your support in order to be and sound informed. Basically so that people take what you're saying seriously, so you can sound like you know what you're talking about, so that your arguments have more weight. It took some time, but I finally realized that yes, they were absolutely right. This IC campaign (as well as their previous two), creates a population of "activists", who will most likely turn into, to use IC's terminology, "slacktavists". People who have been "glamoured" by this video, buy their action pack with t-shirts, posters, and best friend murder bracelets (I can't always quell my reactionary nature), but won't be able to tell you what has been happening in East and Central Africa, or why or to whom. They'll just be able to give an Orwellian response of "Kony bad, IC good". And this is very dangerous.
The danger of the backlash of this campaign is very real.
Increased military action is what is called for in IC's recent video. Mahmood Mamdani, professor and Director of Makererere University's (where I studied for my MA in Peace and Conflict Studies in Kampala, Uganda) Institute of Social Research and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia, University in NY, wrote this article for The Daily Monitor, laying out the history behind Uganda People's Military Force (UPDF) involvement in the conflict with the LRA, and why this may not be a good course of action. I cannot state this information better so please read the article for more on this topic.
Dealing with conflict, and with development, and post-conflict development is a very slippery slope. It is one that I struggle with every day, wondering if what I am doing with Awava is right. Wondering if I have a right to be here in Uganda. Wondering what questions are alright for me to ask the women we work with, and further what information about their lives is appropriate for me to make public. I'm always straddling the line of what information is exploitative and what is just the story. Tragedy sells after all and we are trying to sell the beautiful goods the ladies make. But to what end? And this tactic is not new to social enterprises (like Awava) or to NGOs working to raise funds for their programming in developing, and often war-torn countries. The first heart-strings campaign in the US that I can recall is Sally Struthers sitting with malnourished children in Ethiopia begging for money to feed them. It is not new. But I think that all of us in the development field owe it to the people we work with and for, to evolve, and bring more positives to the light. Saying, yes, this woman has struggled like you wouldn't believe, but look at what she's doing now! Instead, what this IC video, which went viral at record breaking speeds, and reached the eyes of the population it is claiming to help, has done, is over simplified and wrongly portrayed the history of the conflict, as well as the current state of the conflict and the population affected, creating much anger and upset for many (which I will get back to soon). And for what? My first reaction is money. Looking at IC's financial records raises a lot of questions for me. YES, I do believe people should be paid for the work they do, and NO I don't think it is sustainable for an organization to subsist solely on volunteers. But these records seem questionable to me at best, though I invite you to question for yourself.
Back to the reaction of the Acholi people (the population this film is "about")...a couple of days ago I was discussing this video, and its repercussions, with a respected friend. She brought up a point that I had thought about but clearly not enough. What impact is this going to have psychologically on the affected population? A population whose traditional justice model, moto oput, is based on forgiveness and reconciliation? A population who has seen relative peace for the last five years and is trying to move on and rebuild their lives to some sort of normalcy? al Jazeera captured some of the first responses after people in Lira (Northern Uganda) viewed the video for the first time here. I don't have the answers as to the lasting effects of this video reaching the population in question, but I think it is crucial for organizations to be aware of what campaigns such as this could do, and think twice before releasing such material. An organization which has been working with this population for 12 years should surely have thought about this if they are truly in tune with the sensitivity of the issues and the culture at hand. On the other hand, it is indeed a slippery slope and we all make mistakes, I'm just worried about the magnitude of this mistake.
What this means for everyone else....
I've been watching the reactions of everyone whose heart and work is or has been with the people of Northern Uganda, including my own and what we've posted on Awava's various social media outlets, and it would not be fair for me not to mention this, if I'm truly trying to be diplomatic. All of this backlash surrounding IC's video has put so many "others" in the limelight. NGOs, bloggers, photographers, social enterprises, etc. with their hearts and work with the population in Northern Uganda have subsequently received more readership. I know I have seen a spike in Awava followers on Twitter and "likers" on Facebook in the wake of this whole debacle. I personally haven't seen anyone exploiting the misfortune of IC (though I'm sure some are), but it's been an interesting thing to watch, and something I feel should be noted.
I know that in this soapbox, I have left many things open-ended. I did this partly because I think they're good things for people (you) to all think about, and partly because I know well enough that it is alright to say, "I don't know what the right answer is". I have come to find that in situations like these, quite often everybody is right and everybody is wrong. In my time here in Uganda (almost 5 years now) I have also come to realize that I will always be an outsider. I will always come at situations with a Western/American/Kansan eye, no matter how much I think I understand the culture, politics and practices in Uganda and in Northern Uganda. I know that what works one day, may very well not work the next. And I know that what I think I know and believe one day, might not be what I think I know and believe the next. This is why I cannot commit to each point with a definite. And this is why I cannot say for every point, this is bad or this is good. But I can say that this video, while useful in making me dissect and think more actively again about why I'm here, how I came to be here, and what I'm doing, and useful in that it has brought an issue dear to my heart to the international stage, when it comes down to it, the video in and of itself is damaging on various levels, but I hope that with this open dialogue taken up by many, that many positives will come from it.
- the video is horribly over simplified and I hope that before taking "action", people educate themselves on the history and current issues surrounding Joseph Kony and the LRA (we have a reading list on the right side bar of the blog if you scroll down).
- further military intervention is not necessarily the answer, so please dig deeper and acquaint yourselves with the traditional justice model of the Acholi people before imposing your support.
- when supporting any organization, it is crucial to research how the money is being used. Non-profits are required to make this public record on their websites.
- Consider what repercussions videos such as this could have on populations in question.
And now for Darlyne and the tailors.....
by Darlyne Komukama
It has been over a week since Invisible Children released their Kony 2012 video that to date has received almost 80 million views on YouTube alone (it is also hosted on Vimeo where it has also received millions of views).
In that time, I have been trying to figure out what my reaction to the video is. I had thoughts before I watched the video, and then I watched the video and had thoughts of a different nature entirely just based on the film making itself. But then yesterday, I sat with the ladies of Awava and watched the video with them.
Darlyne & Mama Lucy preparing to watch Kony 2012 in Gulu, Uganda.
These ladies have been directly affected by Kony, with all of them losing someone during the time of the war. I know these ladies; they are strong, hard working, funny and their natures belie the experiences they have been through. After we watched the video, I asked them how they felt about Invisible Children's mission and the message in the video in general. The head tailor, Lucy, who lost 2 brothers during the conflict, said watching Jacob talk about his own loss of his brother brought up some troubling memories but these are memories she has to live with everyday while taking care of her orphaned nieces and nephews. On being asked if the Gulu portrayed in the video was accurate since it made it look like Gulu was still at war, her answer gave me a perspective I hadn't even thought about. A perspective I'm sure most people pontificating about the video don't share.
She said, 'The war is still going on in our hearts' and that floored me. She wasn't dwelling on the unfairness of the portrayal, she just wants someone, anyone to arrest Kony so she can finally tell the children she takes care of that it's safe to go back home ... and mean it.
And that's when I realised, my reaction to the video doesn't matter because I, like so many out there, including Ugandans with all the best intentions, have no idea what it's like for the people who lived through this war and what's it's like for them to move forward trying to believe that the war is over for good when Kony, the man who ochestrated it, is still out there.
As simplistic and misguiding the Kony 2012 campaign seems to be, and as much as Invisible Children are facing questions on how they spend their funding, I think it's important to remember that there are still people here, in Gulu, who want Kony arrested regardless who's behind it or how they came to learn about the conflict.