Thoughts on Kony 2012: Respect and Support, No Purchase Required

There is no denying that Joseph Kony is a bad guy. There’s nothing to like about a guy who has abused, abducted, raped, mutilated, enslaved and killed thousands of children in the north of Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Unquestioningly, Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army are forces of evil.

What I do question, though, is Invisible Children (IC). IC has once again brought Kony’s atrocities to the forefront and with it another “Save Africa” frenzy, its Kony 2012 video. At my last check, the YouTube movie has attracted more than 65 million hits. Seemingly overnight, on Facebook, Twitter and all over the web, Uganda is a topic of conversation. (Ironically, Kony was driven out of Uganda in 2006, so truly this is about more than Uganda alone.)

Among other emotive shots, the video features Russell’s attempt to explain the LRA to his toddler son, enthusiastic (and mostly white) volunteers putting up posters and wearing Kony 2012 bracelets, and some heart-wrenching footage of children who walked for miles to sleep in a safe place at the height of the LRA’s power in Northern Uganda. The latter comprised much of Invisible Children’s namesake first film and brought the organization to prominence.

Uganda is a place I became interested in eight years ago when my husband focused advanced degrees on music rituals of  a couple of ethnic groups within Uganda. Let it be known that eight years isn’t a long time at all. But following eight years worth of politics, elections, current events, while maintaining relationships with some beloved Ugandans, coupled with two trips there has provided me with some knowledge of that amazing place.

That knowledge includes this little tidbit: many of the Ugandans I’ve met (both on the continent during two brief visits, and in the diaspora here in the United States) are capable, educated, savvy people. These are people both aware of their surroundings and adept at solving problems in a myriad of ways that address their communities.

That’s why Kony 2012 is so bothersome to me. It’s a pithy marketing campaign to benefit one organization, IC, and its agenda for Central and East Africa. Kony 2012 is completely devoid of the important voices of people in Uganda (and beyond Uganda’s borders), voices that highlight current issues and solutions in contemporary Africa.

If you haven’t started looking around for dissension about Kony 2012, you can start. There’s plenty of fodder for a good conversation.

Christian Science Monitor guest blogger Semhar Araia called out IC, saying,

I appreciate their role. They are reaching a core constituency — many of whom have never thought about these issues before — and getting them to care about Africa. But caring is no longer enough.
There is no easy way of saying what I feel right now, except a deep hurt and gnawing urgency to bang my head against my desk as a prescriptive to make the dumb-assery stop.  Sure, Joseph Kony and his counterpart of yesteryear, Idi Amin, have largely been responsible for the single story of Uganda. I have a hard time shaking it from the lips of strangers I meet. That’s all they know or seem to want to listen to. They dismissively glaze over my breathless exultations of the great promise in our youth, our technology, our agriculture, and our women.

These criticisms of IC aren’t new. In 2009, the blog Texas in Africa, maintained by Morehouse College Political Science professor Laura Seay, featured a guest post by Dustyn Winder and Erin Bernstein that discussed a previous IC campaign, “The Rescue.” Others have extensively covered dissatisfaction with IC for years.

Now here are a few (not so well developed ideas) thoughts. There are lots of complexities here, though the Kony 2012 video makes it seem elementary. Never once, for example, does the movie even mention Museveni, Uganda’s president, and political issues at large in Uganda. How much detail would you expect in a 30 minute video, particularly when it serves as an “awareness-building” campaign and a not-so-thinly-veiled fundraising mechanism?

Here’s another (perhaps not so radical) thought: you can’t solve problems exclusively  looking from the outside in. Three young American white guys thousands of miles away editing video are perpetuating a neo-Colonial “we are here to save you because you aren’t capable of saving yourselves” stance. Maybe that’s not a good thing.

I hope that Americans and other around the globe will question IC and its motives. Indeed, be compelled enough to look around at the good work being done in Uganda and all across Africa, work being done with those who Kony has terrorized, and those who are working at building a life for themselves.

I’m supporting the notion that a trendy, flash-in-the-pan marketing scheme isn’t a long-term, sustainable solution here. That ending the war and ending Kony won’t end problems entirely. I know there are far more questions than answers, but we don’t have to be satisfied with the agenda IC presents. And finally, I think we should all realize that every nation has its share of problems. All politics are local, so let’s get involved in our own backyards, too.

Let’s listen respectfully to African and diaspora leaders and support their efforts as we work together to improve our world without guilt. No bracelet, action kit or t-shirt purchase required.

See more responses from in-the-know smarties on this post at Global Voices by Rebekah Heacock. If the whole thing simply drives you to drink (or has you seriously needing a light hearted moment), check out the drinking game on The post includes a nod to the IRB and proper credit to that creepy photo you’ve seen of the IC guys with bazookas. Finally, The Guardian has provided a few details of IC’s financials, including $244,000 that was likely spent on Washington lobbyists. Take a look over here.


4 responses to “Thoughts on Kony 2012: Respect and Support, No Purchase Required

  1. Very well-written and I agree fully. Just because the Internet says it’s so doesn’t mean it is.

  2. I like your viewpoints Jenn & I’d have to say, you & Pete have got way more knowledge on Uganda than I could ever research. (I’ve kept most my strengths to be local). I’m wondering if what’s missing between the two extremes are context and growth. Context being that the IC story started a while back when these college kids, now thirty somethings happened upon the pictures they displayed in the movie of “piles of kids.” They were shocked, and embraced the opportunity to meet a few of them, but really, to (somewhat) exploit their story in a way to raise awareness that this was happening. Part of me doesn’t think that’s all bad (mainstream news does similarly in my view) because sometimes Americans need a slap in the face to see something. Maybe tho, the problem occurred when the college kids started to experience growth, and thus funding money, yet they didn’t fully grow/mature their concept. I mean could you imagine the POTUS saying we were still going into Iraq ‘shock and awe’ style? No, because the status has matured past that stage. Likewise, I think IC needs to ensure their vision isn’t stuck on a shock and awe or that it hinges on the elimination of one man. Awareness based minstires & NGOs exist, but I think ideally, they need to partner with development orgs that work with indigenous leaders in providing resources to make change the way the indigenous community needs it. Politically, one thing may be true in that the soldiers Obama sent over to provide resources and technology for local govts to locate and arrest LRA leaders may be pulled back due to deficit cuts. And constituents speaking up may help that effort (unless IC throws another check at lobbyists). but I honestly couldn’t tell you if they are doing any real good in being over there.

    Either way, its a fad that gets people thinking less of themselves and more of others. Until they start thinking how that t shirt or bracelet will look on themselves…oh, America.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts, Shelly. I love what you said especially about cooperating with development organizations and people in place to address these issues. I love constituents speaking up, at work I suggest people do it every day, and if there is any silver lining at all for me I guess that may be a part of it. You’re absolutely right: I would love for people (especially the youth of America) to think of themselves less and of others more. And also, just in general, to think. Just because you saw it or read it on the internet doesn’t make it true. How can we make that attractive and awesome? Somebody out there smarter than me will probably have to figure that out but I am totally on board. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Hope to see you in the hometown sometime soon! 🙂

  3. I love and completely agree with your sentiments, particularly in light of your very personal experiences in Uganda. I read a few interesting commentaries in The Week and the Economist this weekend, that highlighted your very same concerns with the video; the colonialist viewpoint and the over-simplification of very complex issues.

    The articles I read also noted that among the current “Facebook” generation, the internet has become a lightning fast self-correcting ecosystem because they – thankfully – question everything. Viral videos do not exist in a vacuum. Although the viability of solutions and approachs suggested by IC may be off mark, the video and it’s intent has spurred discussions on the micro and marcro levels that have exposed many to a new point of view. Perhaps this is the tipping point to a better understanding and empowered sustainable change through appropriate measures?

    Imagine the potential of a social media call to action when all of the pieces are in place? That makes me hopeful.

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