Don't Reduce Uganda to a Meme

Posted by Patrick Kigongo

kony 2012
I was surprised this week to see my Facebook wall and Twitter feed flooded with references to Joseph Kony. When I first went “home” to Uganda 20 years ago—my parents moved to the United States a couple of years before I was born—I was shocked and saddened to find there was still a war going on up north.

For those of you who are still unaware, Joseph Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group engaged in a bush war on the Uganda/South Sudanese border. The LRA is notorious for its recruitment of child soldiers, forced amputations, and routine rape of prisoners of war. My relatives explained to me that the civil war that ended in 1986 in most of the country had never really ended. Because of the conflict—and the fact that most of my family is from the south of Uganda—I’ve yet to visit cities like Gulu or Kitgum. While the war isn’t necessarily close to home for me, it was never something I was able to tune out.

The same isn’t true of my friends in the United States. Until President Obama decided to send 100 troops to Northern Uganda in October 2011, I’d usually receive blank stares when I’d bring up the LRA’s antics in my social circle. In fact, until The Last King of Scotland came out in 2006, the only thing my friends knew about Uganda was that it was the source of my (not very) difficult last name. Shouldn’t I, of all people, be happy that Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign has finally drawn U.S. attention to a long-running conflict in my ancestral home?

To be frank, I’m not happy. In fact, I’m angry. It’s alarming to me how easy it is to whip the masses into a self-righteous frenzy with a simplistic video and a teary soundtrack. At best, Kony 2012 is a hyper-simplification of a complicated issue. It allows most of us to skip the frank, involved discussion in favor of just furthering a meme. Attach a cute two-sentence plea and ta-da! You have just saved the world. The whole endeavor comes off like a fad, not a sustained plea for justice. I’m sure most viewers will forget about Kony as soon as a tweet storm arises about some other social justice issue.

At worst, Kony 2012 is another painful reminder of American apathy. This one viral video highlights the fact that, most of the time, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to be clueless about what’s going on in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many people couldn’t even sit through the 30-minute video, but it felt good to take a couple of seconds to make it seem like they cared. I’d guess that most people who posted or tweeted the Kony 2012 video couldn’t point to Uganda on a map of Africa. Uganda isn't a vacation destination like Japan. It isn’t strategically important like the Middle East. It isn’t big and imposing like China. The continual underestimation of the African content is what allowed Americans to sleep through wars in Congo and Sierra Leone and genocide in Rwanda. This 30-minute video hasn’t changed any of that—in fact, it’s made it easier to see Uganda as a place that can be understood in bite sizes.

A meme cannot make up for decades of ignorance about this and other African wars. Joseph Kony didn’t just turn up on the scene last week. He’s wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and has been on the run for six years. And he’s not a special case, either. He is one of many men who have terrorized innocent Africans since decolonization began in the 1950s. When you glaze over at a real conversation about what’s going on in Uganda—then blow up your social network when a viral video comes along—it’s condescending to the people who really care about this country.

But there's another option: Now that you’re plugged in, you have the opportunity to really start paying attention. When discussing Uganda, whether in school, at work, or among friends, remember to think critically. Don’t just regurgitate a few stats or recap a video. Also remember that Uganda is not just some poor, backwards country. It is not defined by its conflicts. It deserves the help of the world community, but it is not helpless. Of course, I’m biased, but I do believe that Sir Winston Churchill was right when he called it the “pearl of Africa.”
 
FURTHER READING:

Foreign Policy debunks the misinformation spread by the campaign.
 
GOOD interviews one creator of the film who defends the campaign.
 
An Associated Press photographer who captured images of Invisible Children posing with SPLA guns discusses their "emotionally manipulative" tactics and the organizations you should support instead.
 
Michael Deibert, author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, offers his take on the campaign's faults.