In the past few days, "Kony 2012" has blown up the internet. If you aren't familiar with the campaign, check in on Facebook or Twitter. Your friends are talking about it right this second.
"Kony 2012" is part of Invisible Children's ongoing efforts to stop rebel violence in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan and bring war criminal Joseph Kony to justice. The cornerstone of the campaign is a video follow-up to the 2006 documentary Invisible Children Rough Cut. And like that film, this one makes me terribly uneasy.
Briefly, a little background: I am a travel writer not an international-relations expert. I have spent a total of only two months in Uganda and most of my knowledge about Joseph Kony and the LRA comes from my older sister who has worked for various NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in Africa for the past ten years. Two of those years were spent in the LRA affected regions of Uganda. When I went to Gulu, Uganda in 2005 as a volunteer, delivering sports equipment to various charities, I too was horrified by the plight of children I met. As I walked with them from a displacement camp outside of Gulu to a fenced-in sleeping area in the city where they would be safe from Kony's LRA, I too felt moral outrage. I too wanted to be part of the solution.
But to hate Joseph Kony and desire his capture and trial does not mean that I have to think Invisible Children is the right organization for the job. I don't.
There is plenty to complain about in "Kony 2012." The movie oversimplifies complex issues, employs a social media campaign that isn't a perfect fit for the cause, mixes-up the terms "documentary" and "paid advertisement," fails to think about collateral effects of its own message and doesn't really cop to the fact that Joseph Kony isn't actually in Uganda right now. To be fair, Invisible Children has addressed most of these concerns (sometimes half-heartedly) on their website.
Personally, my biggest problems with the "Kony 2012" campaign stem from the choices I've seen from documentarian and ring-leader Jason Russell. To me, Russell's actions reflect a boundless ego and shockingly poor choices made as a westerner abroad. In "Kony 2012," Russell uses his own face. A lot. He glorifies his actions then puts his young son in front of the camera to carry on the bragging for him. He paints himself as a conquering hero. This is consistent with what I saw in "Invisible Children Rough Cut." Russell's phrasing and words constantly skew toward the messianic. In the early going of "Invisible Children Rough Cut," he says in a solemn voice-over: "we were still in search of our story."
That self-centered approach to traveling in a foreign country is where my travel-writer's brain begins to get annoyed. Russell and his gang make absolutely horrible ambassadors. They literally do everything wrong. They sneak over the Sudan (now South Sudan) border -- an action that shows total disregard for the laws of two nations and which, as a result, can cause real danger for skilled aid-workers already on the ground. They get in the faces of people who understand the country better than them. They embody every single stereotype of ugly westerners. In one early scene, fending off boredom, Russell and his travel-companions set fire to an anthill. Russell or one of his cronies can be heard gleefully yelling, "they know what's coming." The ants, that is. Seconds later, they jab a snake with a stick to get it out from under a pile of rocks so that they can (somewhat predictably this time) burn it with gasoline. I want to stand with every single child endangered by Joseph Kony and the LRA but I am not about to take my moral directives from Jason Russell.
In "Kony 2012," the problems are less about specific actions and more about Russell's absolute failure to put Kony and the LRA in context. The result is that the documentary leaves us feeling as if all of Uganda is a scary, dangerous place. That's not fair. Uganda is a complex, beautiful, flawed, wonderful place. Similar, in that respect, to the U.S. or any other country on the map. "Kony 2012" leads us to make the same fear-based generalizations that have derailed tourism in the Palestinian Territories, the Middle East, and Central Africa for years (three regions which I have traveled through enjoyably and safely). When the LRA and Joseph Kony were in Uganda, they were in a relatively remote region in the northeast of the country. By leaving us to feel that Kony is running roughshod and omnipresent, in a video that 71 million people have seen, Russell wields a double-edged sword (both edges of which hack jagged scars into the way Uganda is perceived by outsiders): First, because of Russell's broad strokes, plenty of would-be tourists will be scared of visiting Uganda, thus negatively affecting the country's tourism and 2) Russell has just paved the way for more uniformed young people to swarm to Gulu with good intentions, a savior-complex and no clear direction--thereby disrupting the excellent work being done there by top-rated NGOs.
All it would have taken was some b-roll of the mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or the climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park to shade in this context. Surely, forty seconds of close-ups on Russell could have been trimmed to remind travelers that Uganda, the country, is not a war zone. The only explosions you should be worried about during a visit to Uganda's wildlife preserves are those ignited by Russell when he sees an animal he doesn't like.
My other, travel-based complaints are harder to put a finger on, but they are just as real. I'm not the first person to notice there is a very strange, white and black thing happening in Kony 2012. Find a person of color in the United Colors of Benneton-styled screen shot at 8:25. I dare you. By putting himself (and his race) at the center of a crusade, Russell is falling into the same imperialistic traps that frame Kony's origin story (Kony's propaganda is, at its roots, ill-informed Christian propaganda). In one of the video's most telling moments, a Ugandan soldier says to Russell, "You are making our work here very difficult." The moment is played like the justice-crusader getting unfairly silenced-- without any consideration given to the notion that maybe Russell really was making the work of these soldiers (on hand to protect Ugandan children) more difficult. But what about that possibility? What about the idea that the ego-driven, snake-burning kid with the video camera was acting with a degree of self-righteousness that he hadn't yet earned? Is there a lesson here?
Ask questions. Withhold judgment. Shift your viewpoints. Instead of expecting things to resemble home, remember that you are now "the other" and be open to learning. Don't assume to know better because you come from the west. Also, please don't pour gas on animals.
In their defense of the broad strokes that "Kony 2012" uses, Invisible Children writes, "many nuances of the 26-year-old conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked." I would modify that statement to read, "many nuances of an entire country and its people are lost or overlooked." This is made worse because the video is being watched by people whose knowledge of Uganda is often painfully lacking.
The children of Northern Uganda deserve your concern, energy and money. Travelers know that context is everything.
TO HELP OUT:
To volunteer in Uganda, please consider Soft Power Education (http://softpowereducation.com)
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