Myth, Storytelling and the Wasted Potential of KONY2012
Juliane Okot Bitek
For those of us who have been screaming against the wind to get sustained attention on northern Uganda, the emergence of the KONY2012 video in the world stage was a gift horse – shiny and spectacular. We should have appreciated the exposure; after all there were over a hundred million sets of eyes looking at it. For ten days in which the viral nature of the video permeated all forms of media including internet, radio, TV and print, KONY2012 found its way into conversations on the bus, in the grocery store, amongst my students in Vancouver (one who cried when she watched the video) and in the nightmares that returned when I went to bed at night. The immense sadness after I first watched the video emanated from the realization that much of the footage was recycled from Invisible Children’s 2006 video, Invisible Children: Rough Cut. There was nothing new. What was packaged as an awareness campaign to empower young people into making a difference was a repackaging of the old recording along with historical footage of Joseph Kony and edited seamlessly to contrast with images of the birth of an American child and the awakening of thousands of young Americans as they responded to Jason Russell’s cri de coeur: Who are you to end a war? I’m here to tell you who are you not to? Indeed.
Those of us for whom the situation in northern Uganda has remained close to our hearts heard this cry like déjà vu. I was a teenager in Uganda when Joseph Kony founded his rebel group in resistance to President Yoweri Museveni in 1987. At the time, there were several other rebel groups fighting Museveni’s National Resistance Army/Movement that had taken over power in a coup d’état in January 1986. The LRA was the only rebel group that had survived through the decades, creating havoc and devastation in northern Uganda through the districts of the Acholi, Lango and Teso people as well as parts of West Nile. The war had gone on in full view of the rest of the world and it was often quoted as the ‘longest running war in Africa.’
Today, the war that Joseph Kony is embroiled in is no longer in Uganda. But KONY2012 was not a video about the situation in northern Uganda, or it might have addressed the issues of concern over there. The situation in northern Uganda, as has been pointed out by others including the government of Uganda, isn’t one characterized by night-commuting children and child abductions carried out by the LRA. Northern Uganda is a post-conflict zone that is focused on reconstruction, reconciliation and recovery efforts by civil society, ordinary Ugandans, NGOs and government. The fallout from the war in northern Uganda is severe and right now there’s an outbreak of an awful disease, the incurable “nodding disease” that has afflicted thousands of children in northern Uganda and killed over a hundred of them. The stress of living in a post-conflict zone, especially in a place where people were displaced and have only recently returned to their homes, is compounded by the inability of the central government to provide services like adequate schooling and healthcare for its citizens. There are numerous challenges facing the region. However, people strive for better every day, and reports of bustling towns like Gulu, emerging from the ashes, is testament to the spirit of the people and their well-wishers who work side by side to support them. No doubt there is still much work to be done, but the KONY2012 was never about northern Uganda, or it might have had these issues at the forefront.
So what was the viral video about and what did it contain that led to its hugely successful marketing? What was Invisible Children selling that had so many people order the $30 kits that run out in no time at all? KONY2012 pandered to the privilege that Teju Cole has referred to as “the ability to enjoy ignorance.” So runs this line of thinking: We didn’t know. Now we know. We can do something. We can buy a kit for $30.00 to help stop Kony. Let’s tweet and share and repost and get ready to plaster the cities we live in with STOPKONY posters. Let’s put on our KONY2012 t-shirts and wear the bracelets. We will stop Kony before the video expires in December 2012. If only it were that simple. If only we’d thought about this years ago. How many lives could we have saved from nightmares, torture, certain and uncertain death? How much time could we have saved by preventing the continual suffering of more than 90% of the Acholi people as well as the Teso and Lango people of Uganda incarcerated in displacement camps, or rather death camps where people died, at one point at the rate of one thousand every week for over a decade?
“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” Jason Russell states at the beginning of KONY2012. Apparently the time is now and Invisible Children took the opportunity to launch the campaign to stop Joseph Kony and this idea was embraced by many people who responded exactly as they were asked to. People made a contribution to TRI, an unexplained agency in the video, ordered a kit that included posters, a t-shirt and a bracelet that is uniquely numbered and can be registered online. In the process of ‘enjoying’ this ignorance, thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of young people could not resist drawing a parallel between themselves and their grandparents and great grandparents, three or four generations earlier, and the failure to stop the Holocaust in WWII. There is a certain symbolism in the numbered bracelets, a powerful signal recalling the victims whose arms were inked with unique numbers, registered as they were condemned to unimaginably horrific deaths in Europe. Today, the self proclaimed visionaries, storytellers and filmmakers of KONY2012 have managed to get thousands of people re-enacting the awful tattooing of the Jews while deceiving them into thinking that all they have to do to stop a war is be aware of it; send a nominal fee to sustain the presence of a hundred American troops in Uganda; and spread the word. As if awareness was enough to stop a war. As if awareness is all it takes to be empowered and charged.
At the Nuremberg trials that were held after WWII, a solemn declaration was made that “never again” would humanity let such depravity loose on its people. In 1998, Bill Clinton echoed this sentiment in Rwanda while at the same time, a few hundred kilometres away in northern Uganda, the abduction of children had intensified and people were already living in camps. They had been given forty eight hours by the government in 1996 to enter the displacement camps or face charges of supporting the rebels if they chose to stay on their lands. While Clinton was pacifying the Rwandese and the guilt-ridden West was falling over itself to help Rwanda back on its feet, the world’s attention was so focused on Kigali that the people of northern Uganda had to be invisible at the time. Years later, when the crisis in Darfur erupted in 2003, the world was quick to call it genocide, and the people of northern Uganda, steeped in horrific and sustained war from both the government and the LRA were still to be ignored for years to come. There we were, screaming against the wind, for change, for attention, for anything to stop that madness and it seemed to us that nobody cared.
Still, those people who have consistently fought for peace in northern Uganda did not give up, even though it was hard to address a world that is easily distracted by sexier issues – the newest technologies, best athletes, richest men and women, record breaking short marriages, the sexual appetites of Hollywood and the election of the first African American president. Kacokke Madit (KM), an international conference was convened in London, UK, in 1997 by the Acholi people in the diaspora. That conference was also attended by representatives from both the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army as well as NGOs and civil society to discuss ways in which peace could be secured for the homeland in northern Uganda. Another KM was convened in 1998 to continue the work they had begun the year before – securing a way for peace at home. The third meeting was to be held in Arusha, Tanzania, but was cancelled because of the outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, which would have precluded the attendance of people from Uganda. Olara Otunnu, an Acholi man and a former representative at the UN mourned for the children of northern Uganda as he received the Sydney Peace Prize in 2005:
And so, what shall I then tell the children of northern Uganda – when they ask about the dark deeds that is stalking their land and devouring its people? What will it take, and how long will it take, for leaders of the western democracies in particular to acknowledge, denounce and take action to end the genocide unfolding in northern Uganda?
So if the video was not about northern Uganda, and it wasn’t about the situation in northern Uganda, could it be that it was about the young people discovering the power that is inherent in their privilege and access to information and technology? If you had an audience of a hundred million viewers and a budget of several million dollars to make a video for them, what would you include and what would you leave out? Would you include the bloodletting in Homs, Syria, and provide a background to the present situation over there? Would you make a video about the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina, or the triple tragedy that occurred in Japan last year whose first anniversary was overshadowed by the release of KONY2012? Would you indulge in victim porn, with camera angles that show close-up shots of tear streaked faces and voices crying, that continue after the screen has faded to black? If you were interested in the well-being of kidnapped children forced into a life of sexual slavery and other abuse, would you ignore the story of the Moroccan teenager who was forced to marry her rapist and reportedly made to ingest enough rat poison to kill her? What would you do with a budget of several million dollars and an army of over a hundred million people who are intent on maintaining the traffic on the internet superhighway?
Those of us who care about northern Uganda had hoped that KONY2012 might be able to sustain enough interest for the potential of even a fraction of the hundred million viewers to take a critical stance and ask questions about why they didn’t know what was going on in their planet. We hoped that they would locate Uganda in East Africa, not Central Africa where it has never been. We hoped that they’d challenge the idea that armed conflict is not the answer to nodding disease, land evictions, structural failures, marginalization, child prostitution, HIV/AIDS and the summary arrests of people who want to walk to work in protest against high fuel and rising food costs. If there was an insistence to declare a war, why not declare it on any of the issues that affect the people in northern Uganda today?
We hoped that some of the hundred million viewers might pause to think that their privilege could be located in the fact that at the moment they do not live in a war zone, and question how that position might enable them to connect with those who have lived through it. They may be damaged, or traumatized, but they are still able to teach us, to tell us, to take action, to enunciate what it means to be human in the face of all that horror. A hundred million viewers is about three times the population of Canada, the country in which I live and work. I carry my Ugandan heritage through my parents who were both born there, and through them my grandparents and great grandparents all the way back as far as we can remember. By accident of my birth in Kenya where my parents lived in exile, Uganda became that elusive home that my parents wouldn’t stop talking about. I lived in Uganda for almost a decade, slightly less than a quarter of all the time I’ve been alive, but still, northern Uganda is the place where my grandmother buried my umbilical cord and therefore the place that will always call to me. This painful soil that I call home is also the inspiration for the KONY2012 video. It has borne the brunt of much suffering over the years but it has also produced and continues to present some of the most remarkable people on earth.
Religious leaders organized themselves — Anglican, Catholic and Muslim — uniting under the banner of ‘peace as freedom’ and creating the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI). Together, these leaders are an example of how religions can and should work together for their congregants. They have been leaders in the peace talks, going to the Democratic Republic of Congo to negotiate with the LRA and convincing the government of Uganda that amnesty for the people who were abducted by the LRA was a sensible way to move forward after war. The Imams and Bishops and Fathers walked with and slept alongside the night commuting children while the world turned its face away. These people urged for and successfully convinced the government to provide amnesty for abducted children.
Other notable Ugandans include the Acholi women, survivors of the war in the north, who raised money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina; the unarmed woman politician, Betty Bigombe who walked into the bush to find Joseph Kony and make him sit down and talk peace; the late Dr. Matthew Lukwiya who refused to leave his people dying of Ebola and continued to treat people as he himself was dying; the list is endless – we’re loving and fearless, weak and beaten, powerless in the might of the slick video presentations, but we’re not voiceless and we never have been.
To watch KONY2012 you’d never know about the thousands of hardworking and passionate people who are already doing good work in northern Uganda, and the allies that they work with. I was surprised that the video hardly focused on Invisible Children’s initiatives in the country. As an organisation, and as can been attested from their website, they have built schools, trained and hired people to work as seamstresses and bracelet makers; and they have sponsored many children to get an education through scholarships. I wonder if that was not sexy enough to garner the attention of a hundred million viewers. After all, not that long ago, Gulu, northern Uganda had the highest concentration of NGOs in the world. Perhaps they decided that advocacy fatigue had set in and the campaign needed to have a more nefarious hook. Who better than Joseph Kony who still roams the jungles of the Central African Republic?
Given the existing footage of night-commuting children and the terror associated enacted by that child whose face was frozen for a moment on the screen, what better way to link a living dread to the power of a nominal fee that promises to stop the nightmare from turning into reality? Could a hundred million viewers tell the difference between what happened six years ago and what’s going on now? Would their new-found outrage at the disappearance of thirty thousand children inspire them to demand that the government of Uganda create an independent commission that would inquire into what happened to those children? No. No. No. The power that the video harnessed had far reaching potential to do some good arising from the awareness that Invisible Children sought to campaign for. But to ask that an army of children in this part of the world demand that their government send troops to fight another army of abducted children is too rich for my imagination. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect that at all.