Alfa’s Second Story
There was a young man, hardened eyes, who spoke to us about justice. We knew him as Alfa, no last name. Formerly abducted by the L.R.A at 15, he was now being sheltered among other former abuductees behind corrugated walls and chicken wire at a vocational training school in Pader, Uganda. ‘Former abductees’ was the given term – ‘child soldiers’ had connotations, we were told. Alfa was the one who approached us at first, pensive but with a broad smile, “So this camera here, it takes video too?” he had asked us as we past by the scrawny tree he was resting against. He had a blue biro between his fingers which he kept fidgeting with, biting the nib, tapping. Yes, we nodded, it takes video.
When we sat down with Alfa, we asked him to tell us two stories; one about his past and one about his future. He spoke about his former life as if he had told it a million times before. A terrible tale, ripped from his childhood, innocence beaten out, and a daring escape during a crossfire. When it came time to speak about his future however, he stopped. He simply looked at us and said, “you don’t want to talk about that.” He smiled. “Why?” we had asked. “Because,” Alfa gave out a breath and put his pen in his pocket. “It’s boring. It goes nowhere.” The first story lasted thirty minutes, it had guns, bullets and slaughter. His second story lasted only five words yet was far more tragic. Those second stories never get told.
When Did It Become All About Us?
As I write, the #KONY2012 phenomenon is sweeping the Twitter-verse taking our Facebook timelines along for the ride. On April 20th you might well be waking up to your city plastered with photos of a man who despite a generation long campaign of murder, kidnapping and rape, has mostly gone unknown among our popular culture. A 30 minute documentary from American NGO Invisible Children calling on young people everywhere to ‘make Joseph Kony famous’ has been an unprecedented success in terms of raising awareness and causing a swell in popular interest about the long running conflict. The film paints Joseph Kony as the monster he is – the bad guy – and that the problem we face is that our governments won’t do anything about him unless we make it impossible for them not to. If we succeed in persuading them to act – we become the good guys. As this campaign gathers steam however, so has the criticism. The issues most touted lies beyond the style, beyond the immediate story and beyond the fuzzy feeling of being part of something special. This is something special, no doubt about that, but what that something exactly is remains difficult to pin down.
Let’s take a moment to reflect. We watched this video, well produced, we liked the music. The kid was cute. Compelling idea. For me, it ticked all the boxes it could have possibly ticked in terms aesthetic appeal. Now what? Link it across my streams, watch the ‘likes’ rack up, perhaps join a few friends in painting the town red on April 20th. If you were to ask me why? I would genuinely say I believe it to be right. That I don’t want to live in a world where a man like Joseph Kony does what he does without consequence. But then, when did it all become about us?
My point is that when you stick up a photo of a wretched, evil man and tell me I can stop him doing this to a young woman, then hold up a photo of the young woman, lips sliced off, limbs butchered and rendered stubs, I’m going to agree with you. Sure, absolutely, yes, let’s stop him. My considerations then follow the narrative laid out for me and so too with the compelling call to action which is to be part of a global meme, and thus history.
I happen to believe, however, that how you do something is just as important as what you do.
When Doing Something Is Not Better Than Doing Nothing
There has been a wealth of writing about Invisible Children, some vitriolic, others fair minded criticism of its role as an NGO. It seems to have a development as well as a campaign element at it’s core and it is this uneasy balance that has garnered most of the heat. When CODOC were in Uganda in 2010 we had the opportunity to speak to many NGO’s on the ground. There is incredible work being carried out in collaboration with local communities to bring northern Uganda back from the brink. Many of those we spoke to were happy to stay out of the limelight; they ‘did development, not flashmobs’ they would tell us. It would be safe to say, however, that there was a healthy scepticism of IC and what they felt translated from the campaigns and the reality behind the ‘calls to action’. Campaigning for troops on the ground for example, whether in an advisory capacity or not, should flag up concerns among those who had called their congressmen and governors to do something in their name.
This piece of legislation in particular, promoted by IC among college campuses and advocacy rally’s calls on the US government to help militarily eliminate the LRA. Dwell on this, for a moment. The LRA is reported to be 90% made up of abducted children – military defeat would mean engaging in combat and targeting of the very victims of this war; these children are the LRA. The UPDF by the way are also connected to atrocities committed during the conflict. The legislation also gives no hint as to a time frame for US military withdrawal from Uganda. I’m not sure what those college kids were signing but would they really have signed up for that to be carried out in their name? Forgive me, but if I were to break it down for a five year old, I would say: More Guns In Africa Are A Bad Idea. Lets Not Do That.
Film is a powerful platform to get a message across. It is absolutely natural and indeed honest that we wish to do something substantial to help. When we are offered a way to do it, it’s also natural that we respond in a way that we think might make a difference. But making a difference to what end? The #makekonyfamous campaign is a good idea, and those that call it naive and tasteless ought to dial it down. Taste depends on whose asking. I happen to think a Holocaust Memorial where visitors get given a bracelet with a number on it upon entry and then get told if they have ‘died’ or not by the exit is pretty tasteless, but that happens. The problem is not with the style it’s with the substance – at the very least misleading, at the worst it could be dangerous. At the same time, it really is on us – not the plucky guys from Invisible Children – who are at fault. No-one forces us to hashtag anything, we do it by our own volition and thus the responsibility ultimately lies with us.
Voices From The Ground
The final point I would make is that we have a tendency to get wrapped up in our own experience and sometimes that can fuel a personal drive to help – IC’s backstory in this instance is well documented and should be commended – we here at CODOC are all about the personal take. But when it goes to the extent that this gets in the way of truly listening to those who actually live the horrors of which we only get snapshots of day in day out, that is when we become the bad guys. The problem with only having a singular narrative is that our opinions suddenly exist in an echo chamber. Words and slogans come back to us amplified and reaffirm our own held convictions, however hollow. We desperately need to step back from paternalistic instincts to help an ‘ailing Africa’. These people are strong and have a spirit unlike any I have witnessed. The very fibres of CODOC were wrought under those Ugandan skies and the people have left a deep, deep impact on our own perspectives on how best we can collaborate with them. Dialling a complex and nuanced issue to bare essentials absolutely works to get the point across in immediacy but without fully engaging with the responsibility of action – we could end up hurting those we seek to help.
In 2010 we spent a month with the Acholi people of northern Uganda, listening to their stories. We came away struck by their capacity to forgive. The Acholi speak softly, even timidly about themselves, their stories and their land. What hope do their voices have against the clamour of our own? If you’d like to help, watch the two clips below of our documentary ‘Forgive Me Mother’, and make up your own mind.
Please do spread the word for KONY2012, by all means write letters, email and make a noise. Painting the night sounds good to me – just do so with an informed opinion. I’d like to direct you to two sources that have been of immense value in terms of highlighting the underlying issues: Resolution:Possible (friends of ours) and The Enough Project. Start there.