The continent of Africa is once again in the news. This time the buzz is about a viral video, "Kony 2012," which is about the unspeakable atrocities committed by one Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, which has consisted of a ragtag group of dazed and confused children who have been kidnapped. The girls become sex slaves and the boys are transformed into the child soldiers who mutilate their victims and sometimes are forced to kill their parents. In a matter of days, the video scored 50 million hits on the Internet. Although this is good news for Invisible Children, the organization that sponsored and showcased the video, it is more of the same when it comes to our narratives about the societies and cultures of Africa.
There can be no denial of the horrors of the Lord's Resistance Army or of Joseph Kony's horrendous crimes against humanity. By the same token this film about the unimaginable violence that underscores social life in some parts of Uganda extends the notion that Africa, seen by most Americans and Europeans as one homogenous country, is irreconcilably backward, brutish, and uncivilized. In this narrative, the country, "Africa" is a place of failed government, incessant civil war, widespread famine and boundless filth. It is a place where "Africans," irrational creatures, all have no history, no culture and no religion -- only the "law of the jungle." These Africans, who are destitute and barely human, need our help -- to stop Joseph Kony or some other ruthless commander of an army of kidnapped children. While such activism may well result in the apprehension of a rebel leader, it also reinforces our stereotypical image of "Africa" and "Africans."
One of my obligations as an anthropologist who has spent more than 30 years learning from people who live in various parts of the African continent is to attempt to undermine destructive stereotypes. I never tire of informing people that Africa is not a country. Indeed, there are 54 sovereign nations in Africa. What's more, "Africans" don't speak "African." Indeed, people in Africa speak more than an estimated 2000 languages -- not dialects -- that are grammatically distinct. As such the continent of Africa is marked not by its homogeneity but by an almost mind-boggling diversity.
Such diversity is evident when you travel on the road that connects Niamey, Niger and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in West Africa. When you begin your journey, you are in Islamic Niger and the road cuts through an arid step dotted with acacia trees. Each town features a prominent mosque. This region is populated with Fulani and Songhai people, who tend to be tall and slender. After the border crossing you descend an escarpment and, after 10 kilometers, everything changes. There are vast plains of tall grasses and clusters of cottonwoods. The people who live on the plain, the Gourmantché, tend to be short and more round-bodied. In their towns, the most prominent structure is a church. Fulani, Songhai and Gourmantché, of course, are mutually unintelligible languages. Accordingly, social and cultural life among these geographic neighbors is quite distinct. What's more this diversity exists in a rather circumscribed geographic area.
So Africa is not a country and Africans don't speak "African."
What about the most pernicious stereotype -- that in the face of ongoing civil war and unending famine, "Africans" are powerless and need our help? The peoples of Africa are no strangers to drought and famine. Long before Europeans first traveled there, societies devised all sorts of ingenious social measures to deal with food shortages due to drought and/or famine. Clearly, funds to feed homeless and stateless families are much appreciated. But if you have lived among African peoples and speak one of more than 2000 African languages, what truly impresses -- at least for me -- is a capacity for social resilience -- to confront adversity and adjust to it with verve and creativity.
This narrative is almost never recounted in the media or on the Internet. It is certainly not part of the "Kony 2012" narrative. How much does Kony 2012 filmmaker, Jason Russell, know about social life in Uganda? Does he speak Baganda or one of the other languages spoken in that East Africa country? Has he lived there or is his knowledge of the social life of Ugandan peoples simply a result of his visits and some background reading?
When you immerse yourself in the social life of another society and learn its language, you eventually learn how to ask central, rather than peripheral questions. You are sensitized to what is important. You avoid falling into the trap of exoticism. Consider the following passage from Michael D. Jackson's compelling book, In Sierra Leone, a moving account that focuses on the impact of civil war on the social lives of people in that war-ravaged country. Like Uganda, Sierra Leone experienced the social and moral devastation of an army of kidnapped child soldiers who mutilated their victims. Sometimes these victims were forced to witness the brutal killing of their loved ones. Toward the end of the book, Jackson, an anthropologist who has spent more than 30 years thinking about Sierra Leonean social life, visits the Cline Town displaced persons camp, in which the orphans of war were trying to get beyond the horrors of their recent past. Conditions there were grim. And yet, despite their suffering, the young people there resiliently looked forward to new lives.
What overwhelmed me was not the demands, nor the sense of impotence I felt, but the realization that the these people needed so little to resume their lives, and that, rather than dwell on what had happened in the past, they desired only to move on, to start over...
Like the Sierra Leoneans that Jackson describes, the people I have known in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal -- not to forget those who live in the African Diaspora -- have impressed me deeply with their social and personal resilience. This resilience should be a much more important part of our narrative about the African continent.
The Sierra Leonean orphans of war -- not Joseph Kony -- merit 50 million hits on the Internet. Their stories mark a path toward a better life in the future.