Uganda, the pearl of Africa… It is the land of romance and of the unexpected.
-Explorer Henry Morton Stanley” —http://mozambi5.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/winston-churchill-and-henry-stanley-who-named-uganda-the-pearl-of-africa/
Full Disclosure: I am an all-American girl- who has made Uganda home. I have worked for two NGOs and now a business. I have lived in Northern Uganda and Kampala and traveled throughout East and Central Africa. I don’t claim to represent all Ugandans, all Americans, all Women, or anyone I have worked or currently work for. These are just the thoughts that rattle around while I am brushing my teeth.
“You come, but then you always leave. You always leave” A resident of the Gulf Coast said this to me. There was no anger in her tone, just a matter of factness. She said this in the midst of a party, celebrating the completion of her home. I wanted to argue with here, to tell her it wasn’t true. But she was right- I was there on a one year disaster relief gig. I was proud of myself for sticking it out longer then all those two week short- termers or two month mid- termers. I was a long- termer. Except, I wasn’t- not in her eyes. This wasn’t my home- I was just another person passing through.
You always leave -echoed through my head again, at a meeting with my Ugandan colleagues in Northern Uganda. ‘May we pray for you?’, they asked. What are you praying for?, I asked. ‘We want to pray that you will find a Ugandan husband. Then you will have children in Uganda and you will not leave’. Uganda? Forever? A slight bubble of panic rose up in my brain- at that thought. I had been in Northern Uganda for 3 months. Some days I never wanted to leave and other days I wanted to get on a plane that night. Deep Breath. ‘Yes, you may pray for that’ , I said. I did not marry a Ugandan (or anyone else for that matter) and I did leave- three months later. But then I came back and stayed one year, and then another, and then another. Yet, someday, I will leave- I always do.
Leaving- that is the problem with aid. Those who fundraise for aid, ship aid, perform aid- they will all eventually leave. There is always a bigger, better disaster on the next horizon that captures their attention. Or sometimes, people just get tired or distracted by the own drama of their lives. Problems that are immediately in front of them rather then the problems of far away people, who they have never met. And people leave- whether that is physically or virtually through shifting their donations and attention elsewhere. There has been a shift in aid work and rightfully so, into empowering citizens to perform their own development work. Granted in the throes of emergency, people just need clean water, food, and shelter. But after the emergency passes, are the people able to get the water, food, and shelter for themselves? Because we leave, we always do. Africans need to solve African problems for several reasons: 1) They understand their own problems better then we do. Let me repeat that: Ugandans understand the complexity of Ugandan problems, better then anyone else. 2) They are not leaving. And it is not because they are trapped here, either. I have met and befriended Ugandans who hold Masters Degrees, Law Degrees, and Medical Degrees and multi-entry visas to the U.S. These smart, intelligent, and financially prosperous people live in Uganda, because the want to- because it is home. No one ever questions, why Americans stay in their own country- I am not sure why there is the assumption that someone is in Africa only because they “can’t get out”. I am not saying there should be no aid and all non-Ugandans should head to Entebbe tonight. But there needs to be a critical evaluation of how NGOs are seeking to build the capacity of Ugandans. The goal of every NGO worker should be to ultimately work herself out of a job and then move on.
So all of this leads me to the Kony 2012 video. I hate Joseph Kony- completely and utterly. During my time in Northern Uganda- I saw the scars, I heard the stories, I saw the bush children that had been born out of the habitual rape of their mother. I hate Joseph Kony and I am not alone, so does the rest of Uganda, DRC, CAR, South Sudan, and those who knew who he was, before this video. So my problem with the video is not the premise- I agree Kony and all of his commanders should be stopped.
The problem is the framing of the issue. Let’s face it- the target audience for this campaign is middle class Americans between the ages of 16-25. Jason Russell and his team have done a fantastic job reaching their demographic. The video is well produced, has a great soundtrack, and is motivating. Russell is a talented filmmaker and marketer, but to steal a line from Spiderman- “with great power, comes great responsibility”. His very success is what has people angry that he isn’t more accurate. Now granted 15 years of history, four countries, and the intricacies of reconciliation cannot be covered in a 30 minute video. But at the end of the video, there is the feeling that Africans are victims (once again) and a crusading army of Westerners needs to save the day (once again). Uganda is once again a war torn and dangerous country. No one would stay there, if given the option of being elsewhere. I guarantee that within the last 48 hours, folks have asked my parents if I am “safe” in Uganda or if I am in danger from the LRA. I have not seen Kony running around in Kampala. I am safe, thanks for checking. And there are other second and third order effects to the perception of Uganda being unsafe. I wonder how many people have decided to take a safari in Kenya, instead of Uganda, after watching the video. Perhaps, as a form of penance to all Ugandans, Jason and his team can make a video promoting Murchison Falls or Gorilla Trekking. Or perhaps, he can make a promotional video for one of the local Ugandan NGOs to help them with fundraising.
Other criticisms of Kony 2012:
-That Name. Invisible? Really? Yes, I hate the name Invisible Children, but I hate the name of WarChild too.
-That photo. Yep, photo was stupid. In the world of the internet, stupid photos always came back to haunt you. I recommend that everyone stop reading this blog, log into their Facebook, and expunge all their own stupid photos. Even better stop taking stupid photos.
-That budget. Ok, everyone, listen up. You are in charge of your own money. Use it responsibly! (Refer back to Spiderman quote.) Research before you donate. The New York Times reports that individuals are calling Invisible Children, asking for their money back. Charities and NGO’s are not Target, you can’t get your money back. So be informed before you give. Has too much money spent on film production and travel? According to their own mission statement, “Invisible Children uses film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in central Africa to peace and prosperity.” By their own admission, they focus on film and advocacy. Filming costs money and so do tickets to Uganda and Washington, DC. If you don’t agree with the mission, vote with your wallet.
-That army. Actually agree with the video on this point. Of the affected areas, CAR, DRC, South Sudan, and Uganda, Uganda has the army with the most resources and the most experience. If Kony, is to be found,-it will be through the UPDF. As for the UPDF’s war record, interesting that Americans are quick to point this out in light of the war atrocities that the US Army has committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let us not pretend that anyone’s hands are clean, in this regard.
-Those Politics. IC is right- advocacy matters. The loud voices get heard. Politicians will only act if there are enough people (of voting age) that make noise. So yes, make noise about what you care about. But everything is a give and take system, politicians sponsor bills because it wins them points with their constituency. And the President and his advisors, make foreign policy decisions based on America’s own interests. Note that Uganda has contributed the largest number of soldiers to the AMISOM force in Somalia. Somalia is a truly war torn country, where the US does not want to send any US troops or advisors. How much easier to send US troops to the UPDF and send the UPDF to Somalia- then the other way around. Yes, I am glad the UPDF has extra assistance in hunting down Kony, but let’s also be aware of underlying motivations and politics at play in all decisions. As my Dad is found of saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and I would add, “There is no free assistance from Americans”.
At the end of the 29 minute video, I knew Gavin’s future plans- to go to Africa, like his Dad. But I was left wondering what were Jacob’s future plans? Is he in school? How are his studies? Does he still have the dream of going to law school? While I won’t donate any money towards Kony 2012 posters, helping Jacob become a lawyer who advocates for human rights in Uganda is something I would put money towards. Because one day I will leave- I always do. And someday, Invisible Children and all the other NGO- the good ones, the bad ones, and the in between ones will leave- they always do. The question is what are we leaving behind?