There's this movie about Africa that everyone's talking about. In case you haven't been paying attention, it's Kony 2012, a 30-minute video by the California-based humanitarian group Invisible Children that found millions of viewers around the web last week. The film describes the group's efforts to end the activities of Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, one of the most vicious insurgent armies in the world.
I don't think I need to go on at great length about the video, since Michael Wilkerson has already dissected it so deftly for FP. He notes that the film, in its eagerness to woo supporters to its cause, distorts the current reality in Central Africa on several important counts. I'm inclined to agree - not least because my two Ugandan colleagues here at Democracy Lab, Denis Barnabas and Jackee Budesta Batanda, have also told me that they don't really understand why the film makes it look as though northern Uganda is still suffering from Kony's ravages. (In fact, as critics point out, Kony likely left Uganda six years ago, and the LRA is probably down to a force of a few hundred by now.) While all of us have been talking about Uganda over the past week, it's striking, in fact, how few Ugandans have had a chance to participate in the conversation.
If you don't believe me, just take a look at this video by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, in which she chides the makers of Kony 2012 for portraying Africans primarily as powerless victims who have to wait for the white people to ride in and save them. "You shouldn't be telling my story if you don't believe that I also have the power to change what's going on," she says at one point. Sounds valid.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Africans are tired of being typecast as victims. The sad fact of the matter is that we in the West (if there still is such a thing) still prefer to imagine Africans primarily as victims and ourselves as their redeemers. You'd think we'd be way over this by now. By now we've had countless books that deflate Western myths about Africa -- including the sometimes distorting effects of well-meaning development assistance and humanitarian aid. And you'd think that we'd be ready to move on to serious solutions for the problems that undeniably exist.
Old habits are hard to change, apparently. One thing that's conspicuous about Kony 2012 is the way that it spends more time on the activists campaigning against Kony than it does on the people who live in the places where he's committed his crimes. Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, his equally appealing young son, and their legions of twenty-something supporters around the world get far more footage than any Africans. It doesn't seem like a stretch to assume that this (in addition to its amazing production values) is one of the reasons why Invisible Children's film has struck such a nerve. People would much rather identify with the heroic crusader than the evildoer's depressing victims.