Blog: Kony 2012 - Hype over substance

SBS reporter Jeanette Francis spent three months filming and travelling in Uganda. Here's her perspective on the troubled, yet fiercely proud, African country, the legacy of Joseph Kony and the 'Kony 2012' video.

SBS reporter Jeanette Francis spent three months filming and travelling in Uganda. Here's her perspective on the troubled, yet fiercely proud, African country, the legacy of Joseph Kony and the 'Kony 2012' video:

I just got back from almost three months in Uganda. The trip was a mix of work and pleasure. After two-and-a-half months travelling the country, I can safely say I still know next to nothing about Uganda. I don't understand its complicated politics, I don't know much about its economy or its tumultuous history, I am almost clueless about the intricacies of its tribes and languages, and regional etiquette escapes me.

I filmed several news stories while I was there; one on women rebuilding their lives after the brutal conflict that had devastated the country's north for two decades. Northern Uganda is now a relatively peaceful place. During the dry season the temperature hits 35 degrees every day.

Between towns the region's bumpy, red roads snake through arid grasslands, littered with women carrying babies whose tiny, fuzzy heads poke out from underneath the shawls and blankets their mothers use to strap them to their backs. At night, the only way you can tell the land is inhabited is by the small fires flickering in the distance, illuminating the round mud brick huts so many families call home.

I spent time in various parts of northern Uganda and never felt as though there was any threat to my personal safety. Why should there have been, the area is safe and aside from a stray comment here or a new NGO there, you would never know that only years ago it was the heartland of a very violent conflict.


So imagine my surprise when I woke up yesterday morning to what seemed like everyone I have ever friended on Facebook posting about Joseph Kony – the self-styled leader of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group that had wreaked havoc on its own people for two decades. Not only had everybody suddenly realised that there had been a long and brutal conflict in northern Uganda but suddenly everyone seemed to care.

"Make a difference", "it's time to matter. Make Kony famous", proclaimed status updates and tweets from all over the world. People and rent-a-celebrities became technological activists taking part in a mass campaign to save the lives of children in a country they had probably never even heard of. Joseph Kony and the LRA had suddenly become all the rage. Strange, given that their atrocities in Uganda started more than 20 years ago and ceased in 2006.

We have certain ways of understanding countries and people who aren't us. We like to package them into neat little boxes so we can better relate to them. There are those in Northern Uganda who know more about Joseph Kony than you or I or even Invisible Children, or the United Nations or the International Criminal Court or any NGO. They are the people of northern Uganda, people who apparently desperately need our help and our intervention – military or otherwise – to bring about justice.

In Gulu - Kony heartland - I met a young girl named Coincy. She's 20 years old. At 13, she was returning home from a neighbouring village with her cousin when she was abducted by LRA rebels. After a week in captivity carrying heavy loads of weapons and goods for the rebels around the Ugandan bushland, she was forced to strip naked. The rebels discovered she was already three months pregnant so to punish her they cut of parts of her lips, nose and ears and dumped her by the roadside.

I'm only telling you this story because when I spoke to this girl or rather when she spoke to a translator who spoke to me, I could only think of my sister, who is also 20. My sister has boy problems and fake nails. She's just started a new university degree, she fights with my father over curfew, she works in a café, she's saving up for a trip to Europe and the Middle East later this year. That's what we know being 20 to be all about. It's not about being abducted by LRA rebels. It's not about having part of your face sliced off because you were already pregnant by 13.
I know – or at least I thought I knew – about the alternate lives that some people in this world lead.

Surely, it doesn't take much know about and understand the situations of those less fortunate than ourselves, to understand their reality especially given that we're so saturated with information in this digital age. But it does! It takes a lot. It takes more than three weeks in an area or two months in a country and it sure as hell takes more than a click on a website.

I didn't understand Coincy or her reality, I still don't. The most I understood was part of the story she chose to tell me and the most I could relay on television was 30 seconds of that. It's the nature of the beast that is TV news. Now there's another beast that's already made its way from the horizon to the foreshore of news consumption. It's 140 characters long and can spread like a disease around the world in a matter of seconds, infecting the unsuspecting with a potentially false message.

Of the millions who have seen and liked and shared the Kony 2012 campaign video, I'm going to wager a guess that a significant proportion know almost nothing about Africa, about Uganda, about Gulu, about the Acholi, and my feeling is that after watching it they still don't know because apart from Jacob there were no other Acholi voices in the story. There was nothing from the people at the heart of this conflict.

One of my friends who posted the video as a Facebook status update told me it was good thing because it drew our attention to what was going on in Uganda. But that's the whole point: it did anything but! It drew attention precisely to what was going on outside of Uganda, namely in the offices of high ranking officials in the United States.

It's based on the assumption that Kony is not "famous" enough, which is absurd because he's one of the most sought after criminals in the world and has been for years. Just because you may not have heard of him it doesn't make him any less notorious, it doesn't lessen his crimes. Ask anyone in East Africa who Joseph Kony is and they'll tell you, but this campaign is clearly not about the people of East Africa, it's about us in the west and it's about Invisible Children, whose team managed to achieve unprecedented success with their campaign going viral in days. It's about their efforts, about the creator explaining it to his young son, about the team's advocacy and the response they got or hoped to get. It's about the university students, the mothers, the teenagers, the business people, the store owners, the public servants, the journalists, the pensioners around the world who get to take one minute out of their day to get outraged, share a link and sleep better at night for it. So we can feel like we mattered.

This certainly doesn't mean people shouldn't watch the video, like it and share it and it doesn't mean they shouldn't feel passionate about making a difference. But before you like and share you need to question. Question the organisation and its motives and funding, question the timing and more importantly question what you now know about northern Uganda that you didn't before watching the video.

Kony 2012 peddles a simplistic narrative, devoid of nuance. It offers no concrete plan other than to "stop Kony." It doesn't explain what will happen if he is caught (nor the means by which he will be caught), whether the child-soldiers he recruited should be punished along with him or whether government troops, who were also responsible for countless atrocities, should too be brought to justice.

Its disempowering narrative takes agency away from so many of the people who are working on the ground to help rebuild northern Uganda and its communities; people who understand the complexities and politics behind this conflict because they lived it. This campaign fashions itself the lone wolf stopping at nothing to seek justice for the hapless people of northern Uganda yet it avoids complex questions such as: what if they don't want justice? This may sound absurd but many northern Ugandan families have children who were abducted by the LRA and subsequently became the LRA. They want to see them return home and if that happens who is responsible for their reintegration? Not Invisible Children I suppose.

The truth is Kony 2012 is not about the conflict in northern Uganda. It's a story of victims, villains and more importantly heroes - foreign, white people like us with power and money and influence, sitting before our keyboards, on our proverbial white horses striding into the country to save those whose voices and faces tell us they need saving, voices and faces that almost can't say anything else because – like me with Coincy – we fail to understand them when they do. They no longer fall perfectly into that neat little "victim" box we've spent so long fashioning for them.

Coincy, like any human being anywhere in the world is many things. She may be a victim but she's also a fighter, a mother, a farmer, a woman, an Acholi and like much of the district she lives in she's rebuilding and moving on from her shattered past. Gulu has grown considerably in the past five years and its residents live in a peace they haven't seen since the mid 1980s, thanks in part to their efforts and resilience.

Uganda is a proud country and believe it or not, its people are not waiting for a saviour from abroad to rescue them from themselves and even if they were, that saviour is not you, with your Kony 2012 wristband, your win-a-prize t-shirt, your shiny MacBook Pro and your Twitter account.

Watch Jeanette Francis's report on Ugandan women here via YouTube:

Watch the 'Kony 2012' video on YouTube:

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