International Women’s Issues: Northern Uganda

It’s going to be a bit of an unusual column this week, folks. As you might have guessed by the title, we’re going to be looking at Uganda, but since, somehow, International Development has become a hot topic, I’m going to have to talk about Invisible Children. Or, at least, point you in the direction of other people who have already made my points for me.

If you are already all-too-familiar with Invisible Children, and have seen the video, read the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, and perhaps even more levels of backlashing, and are frankly a little over the entire thing by now, please just skip down to below the video to be spared the retelling, and just read about the awesome things women in Northern Uganda have done and are doing to rebuild their country after centuries of colonialism and decades of conflict.

If you’ve only heard about Invisible Children or Kony 2012 in passing, or have somehow escaped the media blitz all together, or just want the version of the story as told by someone who’s been studying it for over a decade, let me explain a little bit.

See the orange bit? That's where we're talking about.

Invisible Children is a non-profit founded by some then-college-aged boys in California who were looking to make a documentary about Darfur. On their way into Sudan, they stumbled into Gulu instead. It was 2003, and war had been raging for twenty years in northern Uganda. Both sides – the insurgents, called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – and the Ugandan government forces – were using child soldiers. The LRA was particularly heavy handed, in that they were kidnapping children from their homes as they slept at night. (And then sometimes forcing said children to kill their relatives, neighbors, or become sex slaves.) So children and young teenagers would walk miles every night, in from their towns and villages, to sleep in the comparable safety of the hospitals, churches, and schools of Gulu, one of the larger cities in the region. I’m not sure who first used the phrase “night commuting,” but that’s what it’s called. On a global scale, very few people knew about this, though you can bet that the Acholi people, who live in Northern Uganda, were well aware of the situation, and probably had some ideas for how to fix all this. None of this was invisible to them, The aspiring filmmakers decided this was more important than Darfur, so they made a documentary.

The boys took their documentary on a college tour (where it was seen by your author, at the tender age of 21, before she knew better.) Their goal was to raise awareness and money for the night commuters, and the name of their documentary became the name of their organization – and, more disturbingly, a new name for the children and teenagers of Gulu.

But time passes, and things change. Theoretically most importantly, the situation in Uganda changed drastically. A peace treaty was signed between government and LRA forces on August 26, 2006, mostly ending the two-decade-long war. The LRA was forced pretty much entirely out of Uganda, though it has been active in the DR Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. In the meantime, Uganda has made significant strides as a country, hugely reducing the HIV/AIDS rate, making secondary school free and compulsory, and working hard at getting people in Northern Uganda back to their homes, where people in their twenties could find out for the first time what it was like to live a peaceful life. These are huge accomplishments that should be globally lauded.

Invisible Children, though, has largely not acknowledged these advancements. Armed with a second documentary and a burning urge to have the US government weigh in on Northern Uganda, they launched yearly events, lobbying days, and did just about everything you ought to do if you want to get college kids really riled up about something. Cool bracelets and swag for sale? Check! Putting up posters? Check! Anyway. They also start doing what we in the International Development world call “programming” – running programs in-country that aim to get children into school, livelihood training, etc. But the bulk of their focus, and this is important, was never, “We’re going to go save the Ugandans.” It was, “We want you, Westerners and college kids, to know that Ugandans need to be saved!” See the difference? They’re not a programming organization, they’re an awareness organization. And because they were mostly under the radar, nobody was paying too much attention.

And then the Kony 2012 video came out. 73 million people watched it in a few short days. It can certainly tug at the heartstrings, between the crying Ugandan children, the little blonde boy, and George Clooney.

Before I had even watched the video (which I just did now, because I care about you, dear reader) a more nuanced analysis, of both Invisible Children and Northern Uganda, emerged. There were criticisms of Invisible Children’s funding, their motivation, (valid) accusations of white savior syndrome, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that IC somehow made a video about a war in Uganda all about American college students. Here is some further criticism, if you’re interested:

  • Semhar Araia writes in the Christian Science Monitor about the lack of African voices in both the film and the entire organization.
  • Timothy Burke writes about the over-simplification of these incredibly complex issues and the disservice this does to, well, everyone.
  • In a turn I find quite disturbing, evidence has emerged suggesting Invisible Children has strong ties to the religious right.
  • Perhaps most poignantly, Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire posted a video repsonse, below, and the rest of her blog has even more information.

And I just took a break to watch the Daily Show’s opening bit on Monday night, and it’s about this exact topic. Do you know how awesome it would be if every topic I wrote about here got seven minutes on the Daily Show? But I digress.

As others have said, it is not enough to want to help people. It is not enough to want to stop “someone who’s bad.” You have to realize who you are, where you are coming from, and what baggage and privilege you’re bringing with you. You have to know that there are no simple solutions, and you have to wholeheartedly let the people who are actually living with this situation dictate what ought to be done, and how. It doesn’t really matter how good your intentions are. What matters is your impact. If you decide that you want to help people, you need to be humble, and you need to stop talking. Be quiet and listen.

Who shall we listen to?

We must begin with Betty Bigombe, who has done so much towards peace in Northern Uganda that the Bigombe Talks is how the world refers to years of intermittent peacemaking efforts from 1993-2005, which paved the way for the successful Juba Peace Process(named for the city where they took place, rather than after a badass lady.) Bigombe is a native Acholi, born outside Gulu, educated in Southern Uganda and in the US, and is a former Member of Parliament and World Bank official.  Much of her work involved meeting with both sides of the conflict and negotiating demands for food, cease-fires, and in her own words, simply listening. She, pretty much single-handedly, got the LRA and the government to trust each other enough so that when they finally sat down in Juba in 2006, something close enough to a lasting peace could be established. Of her time spent negotiating, she says,

“But I cannot tell someone, ‘End the war,’ when I don’t know what’s in your heart.”

As I mentioned earlier, active war has been gone from Northern Uganda for over five years. So the focus has shifted from survival to recovery, everything from the reintegration of former soldiers and child soldiers to reparations and justice. One of my own problems with the IC video, which I haven’t seen touched on, is the insistence that the International Criminal Court arrest and put Joseph Kony on trial. Which is not the worst idea, but it’s also using a Western instrument to address a primarily Ugandan problem. There are many “traditional” (non-Western) tools for achieving justice, and there are women in Uganda working towards implementing them, if not for Kony himself, then for many members of the LRA.

The Greater North Women’s Voices for Peace Network, Ugandan Women’s Coalition for Peace, and Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, all woman-founded and lead NGOs based out of Northern Uganda, have been advocating for this for years. In August of 2007, they submitted a joint letter to the ICC, requesting, among other things, an investigation into all crimes committed during the war, rather than focusing on “one party,” and urged “all perpetrators should also be reconciled through use of traditional justice mechanisms adapted to respond to the suffering of the communities and the crimes committed, particularly against women, during the conflict.” As it is all too easy to see the war as an outgrowth of the colonial influence, perhaps the peace should come from Ugandan traditions.

Jane Babiiha Alisemera, an MP from Northern Uganda and head of the Ugandan Women of Parliament Association uses her power in the legislative body to ensure that women’s rights are considered at every step of the recovery process. Eighty percent of people returning from internally displaced refugee camps are women and girls, and she is their voice in government.

Focusing further on recovery is Lina Zedriga Abuku, an attorney and expert in “women, peace and security.” Via her UN-appointed role as Country Manager for UN Resolution 1325, which recognizes the role of women in the peacebuilding process, Abuku has started a campaign entitled “Nothing about us, without us” which seeks to engender the peace process, and make sure that women are seen as stakeholders, rather than victims. She works to ensure that women’s rights are provided for in the federal government’s plans for peace and recovery, both by advocating for women’s rights, and working with women returning to the region to best understand their needs so she can fight for them in the political arena.

Great things are happening in Uganda right now. Women like Betty Bigombe, Jane Babiiha Alisemera, and Lina Zedriga Abuku – and thousands of others – have worked incredibly hard to ensure that the people of Northern Uganda can look forward to years of peace and security, and hopefully to reparations and justice.  And they will continue this work, no matter how many hits a shiny video gets on Youtube.

Africa’s Peace Seekers: Betty Bigombe (this one is particularly fantastic)
Betty Bigombe, Mother of Uganda’s Acholi 
Rights Africa: Uganda Women Seek Gender Recovery Plan
Uganda: Jane Babiiha Alisemera
Uganda, PART II: Views of Ugandan women on peace process; ICC workshop
Women Waging Peace 

Special thanks to my sister Amy, whose keen editing prevented this piece from being excessively polemic.

25 thoughts on “International Women’s Issues: Northern Uganda”

  1. I have a few different opinions on the topic, and some I’m not sure about.

    1.)  If I remember my numbers correctly, about 32% of the money goes directly to the cause in some way, another 30 something percent is travel and I don’t remember the rest.  As the (roommate of) a nonprofits major, 32% of money going towards direct action is actually a great achievement.  In my opinion, organizations aren’t going to get very far if there aren’t a few committed people willing to devote their entire lives to the cause– and no one can devote his or her entire life without getting paid.  So I’m okay with this.  Also, duh a lot of money goes towards transportation.  They’re going back and forth to various African countries.

    2.) Personally, I thought the video made it very clear that the LRA was no longer in Uganda.  I don’t know why everyone is up in arms about this one.  It had the little map that showed it (the LRA) moving around, and that’s why Jacob, the Ugandan friend, was allowed to come speak in America about his plight.  I thought the whole point was to stop Kony, no matter where he was.

    3.) The White Man’s Guilt stuff… I dunno how I feel about this one.  I’m white.  I don’t look at “Africa” as a single country, I know that its a continent made up of many different countries with vastly different people, traditions, cultures and religions.  I don’t think everyone in “Africa” is uncivilized, underprivileged, uneducated etc.  I know that there are incredibly poor areas where people are malnourished and many don’t have access to education, health care, or even clean water.  I know that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (MLK) and “As long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” (Robert Kennedy)  I would like to think that as a human being, not as a white person, it is my job to help other people, not just “Africans,” because I have plenty and because Kony is a war criminal, period, who needs to be stopped.

    4.) I don’t understand why everyone is up in arms about promoting awareness.  I think it’s great.  Why? It sparks this conversation.  When people are talking, shit is getting done.  Sure, your average citizen can’t and/or isn’t going to do much, but the more the word spreads, the more likely it is going to get to someone who can and/or will do something.  I look at this attitude the same way I view the kids in school who constantly ask the teacher, “Why am I learning this?  I’m never going to use it.”  Because you could never possibly know the repercussions of the things you learn, because it could help you on a topic you didn’t know was related in the future, because you actually MAY end up using it in the future, because you’re fortunate enough to receive a publicly sponsored education that many don’t have access to, and because even if you never ever ever use it in the future, you should never turn down the opportunity to learn something new.  It makes you a better citizen.

    5.) Also, many people are upset about IC’s support of the Sudanese army.  An army full of “rapists and murderers.”  (not saying this is okay– keep reading.)  Also, their association with the religious right.  Also, their support of militant actions.  All of these are disconcerting, yes, but in reality I don’t think the government is going to listen to IC’s “game plan” word for word.  They have much smarter people in charge (diplomats, foreign policy experts, military action experts, etc.) who know the situation better than anyone at IC, and these people will come up with the best game plan we can.  Let’s be honest– There’s no oil in these areas some there’s no way we’re sending our entire army over there.

    I’ll be supporting KONY2012 because they’re the loudest voice, they aren’t corrupt, I believe they have the best intentions, and they’ll get the “smart people in charge” to do the best plan of action.

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for your comment. Let me see if I can clarify a few things.

      1) When IC says that a third of their money is going directly “directly to the cause,” they mean programming in Uganda, and that 33% includes salaries for program staff and for their transportation, etc. And even if your understanding is correct, and one third of the money is used for direct action, the remaining two-thirds is an unacceptably high indirect cost rate (meaning the money being used for overhead, management, salaries, etc.) To get US Gov funding, your indirect cost rate needs to be somewhere around or below twenty-five percent, I believe.

      2) The amount of time the video spends explaining that Kony is no longer in Uganda, compared to the amount of footage used that is at least 5 years old, and the amount of times “the war in Uganda” is referred to, is misleading. I believe they mention the fact he’s out of Uganda once. And Kony had little-to-no bearing as to whether Jacob, or anyone else who was not actively part of the LRA, could travel.

      3) The White Man’s Burden stuff is for me the trickiest, as it’s something I wrestle with myself. The urge to want to help, and the desire to “do good” are not bad things. But helping people, and combating injustice, has to be about them, not you or your agenda. (And when I say “you” I don’t mean “you” personally, but “a person” or whatever.) If you genuinely want to “do good”, there needs to be no ulterior motive, whether it’s religion or self-interest or whatever. And to that, you add centuries of truly horrific history, of the West Doing Development Wrong for centuries, which pretty much caused this war and dozens of others. I’m not sure if there IS a way to recover from this, but I’m pretty sure that if there is, it involves putting the targeted population in charge. IC’s focus seems to be putting college kids in the US in charge.

      4) Awareness is great. As I said, I wish every topic I wrote about in this column got the same attention IC has gotten. However, the quality and validity of the information, and the perspective it’s presented with, is incredibly important. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and attempting to inform people about the situation in Uganda (or, hell, the situation in Uganda a decade ago) needs to be done with the proper historical and cultural background, and from the right perspective. As I think I’ve made clear, I don’t think IC is educating people the right way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s misinformation on their part, but they are leaving some incredibly important things out.

      5) I frankly don’t think the government is going to listen at all. And if we’re going to start using the military to go after human rights abusers, theres’ a LONG list of far-worse perpetrators than Kony. Look at Burma, look at DR Congo – Lubanga was just found guilty by the ICC of war crimes today, and there is still active war and horrific atrocities occurring.

      I can understand wanting to support Invisible Children, but I simply don’t think it’s in the best interest of the people actually affected by the war to do so. Good intentions are worthless if they cause more harm than good. Here’s the response of some Acholi who were shown the video: The fact that that is the response of the populations IC is ostensibly trying to help pretty much sums everything up.

  2. Here’s another thing I just thought of – in the video, and, indeed, throughout Invisible Children’s documentaries, there’s a boy named Jacob, who was a night commuter and who lost his brother to the war. Our fearless hero asks him to talk about his brother and his life, and the boy breaks down in tears. It’s incredibly moving, of course, but I can’t help but think it’s pretty damn exploitive. There are millions of dollars spent on DDR programs (demilitarization, demobilization, and reintegration) of child soldiers and children affected by war, helping them to deal with the horrible memories they have. People with tons of education and experience work VERY carefully with these kids, using therapy (and sometimes theater, which is a whole other column and kind of my favorite thing) to help them work out and begin to resolve what they’ve been through, once they’re safe and can begin to process things. Running into a kid on the street and asking him to talk about traumatic memories is really messed up by comparison, don’t you think?

  3. I heard about  Invisible children in 2007, because a band I listened to- fall out boy- did a music video in conjunction with it that applied one of their songs-  I’m like a lawyer with the way I’m always trying to get you off- to the story of a young man and a young woman in Uganda. Which. . . it doesn’t match the song? Then again, I’m pretty sure that that might have something to do with the rebelling white middle class western dude perspective of the band’s song writing. . . It’s the music video not the song that was done for IC.

    So by the time this Kony 2012 thing happened, I was pretty much over the organization IC, as I had been turned off by the Young passionate but not so straight laced as their parents  Evangelical overtones that community around it fostered. Plus, I had made connections to action orgs who were doing measurable things yet struggling to raise money while awareness orgs we only growing. It just seemed wrong. Adding in the difference between something with Ugandans in leadership roles vs one that didn’t and I wasn’t comfortable with it.

    The whole thing just. . . seems to be fixated on promoting the people behind IC. Like a promotional stunt living past it’s prime sort of thing? Like, Supporting the idea of helping Child soldiers is brownie point getting, and the brownie points are the purpose not the actually young people getting support as they reintegrate into their society?

    1. Yes and yes – I was on a similar path in terms of finding IC early, getting intrigued, and then getting over them quickly. Around that time, they used a song by The Killers (All These Things That I’ve Done) in one of the IC videos. This made marginally more sense, as the refrain was “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” but still. Yeah. The focus is on the founders and the college kids, not the Acholi children they claim to be saving.

  4. Very informative, thanks. As a stinky cynic I was already side-eyeing the eruption of Let’s Save All The Children in the communities I visit.
    I can not find much fault in people reblogging this and crying out because at least it shows that they can think outside of their own country, but it also shows that Charity-On-Demand is still at large. Luckily I only have smart people around me whom I can forward this article to after pestering them with the Visible Children stories ;-)

  5. Great article. I’ve been seeing so many different points of view about this that it’s been hard for me to sort out. Your perspective on this is much appreciated

    This reminds me a lot of what I see in Detroit with some of the urban farming initiatives, but on a much much grander scale. On the whole, I’m pretty pro urban farms. Detroit can be a massive food desert at times, and this brings in jobs and uses the unused land. But you get a lot of rich white guys coming in to “help” who just don’t get why there is a fair amount of distrust from the locals on the issue. Gee, could it be that it’s because they haven’t involved the locals at all in their decisions? They can’t just come in, buy a bunch of land, anounce that you are the great white guy to the rescue, and expect to be welcomed with open arms. They haven’t reached out to the grass roots urban farmers. They’ve made no effort to show that they want to empower people in the same way the grass roots folks have. So, no, they are not trusted.

  6. Thank you so much for this wonderful article.

    It angers me that, in US depictions of Africa/African countries (possibly European ones as well, I can’t speak from experience here, though), these places are perpetually shown as stricken with famine, violence, and instability. And yes, these are problems, and the process of colonialism and postcolonialism absolutely contributes. Thus, there are certain responsibilities this creates for those who are in more privileged places. (At least, for those who have the means to do something, of course; there are plenty of abjectly poor people who need help in the US, too)

    But we never get shown the positive side of Africa/African countries. And we only hear about Euro-American efforts to help. How fucking paternalizing is that? There are so many amazing people from these countries who are fighting hard to make their home a better place.

    It reminds me of the US dialogues about abolitionists in the Civil War. The bulk of the activism was by black abolitionists…but aside from a couple key black figures, we only tend to hear about the white abolitionists.

    1. That is kind of the crux of what I want this column to be – let’s look at the positive things women are doing in places we rarely hear about in a positive light. Admittedly, the bulk of the articles tends to be background of the country/issue, and the negative impact of the issue, but I always try to highlight several “local” women who are improving their own communities and countries. And I think this is a problem everywhere in the non-western world, though perhaps it’s at its worst in Africa.

      1. Most definitely! And I agree with you, this is an endemic thing, but with Africa…it is the worst.

        I appreciate the way you wrote this, because I hadn’t heard of this issue, nor the details of the background, so it really helped to frame what was going on.

  7. Great, informative article. And thank you for also linking to Rosebell Kagumire’s response. I think she perfectly illustrated what is so frustrating about these types of campaigns: “You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on”.

  8. As others have said, it is not enough to want to help people. It is not enough to want to stop “someone who’s bad.” You have to realize who you are, where you are coming from, and what baggage and privilege you’re bringing with you. You have to know that there are no simple solutions, and you have to wholeheartedly let the people who are actually living with this situation dictate what ought to be done, and how. It doesn’t really matter how good your intentions are. What matters is your impact. If you decide that you want to help people, you need to be humble, and you need to stop talking. Be quiet and listen.

    One of the things I’ve found most striking about the backlash-against-the-backlash is how defensive people have been about the video’s effect on them. The refrain is, ‘well, it may not be perfect, but it’s raised my awareness, so in the end isn’t that a good thing?’ It’s like people can’t accept that the video was designed to make them feel virtuous for caring, and can’t let go of that sense of righteousness they get from it. They’ve completely internalised the message of the film, which is that this cause is really about young American activists – not about the Africans they purport to be ‘saving’ (and don’t even get me started on the White Man’s Burden-like imagery of that).

    This is a wonderful, informative, incisive piece. I’m going to send it to everyone I know who’s still peddling the ‘some awareness is better than no awareness’ trope, to remind them that actually, ‘awareness’ is not an end in and of itself, and when it’s the wrong kind of ‘awareness’ it can do more harm than good. Bravo!!!

    1. There are a lot of human rights issues (though the same could be said for just about anywhere.) Homosexuality is currently illegal, and yes, there is currently a bill being debated in Parliament that would make it punishable by death. It was first proposed a few years ago, and failed to pass, but was reintroduced last month. The bill is strongly supported by the Evangelical Christian missionaries and is seen by most as a result of Western missionary work in the country.



        1. I honestly don’t know. Two-thirds of their funding never reaches Uganda (because they’re an awareness organization, not a programming organization) and the third that does, well, I know they’ve built schools and do vocational training. What they’re teaching in those schools, I do not know. When IC came to my super-secular undergraduate university in 2005, there wasn’t a word from them about their religious ties.

          There are LOTS of groups operating in Uganda right now, and many are much more up front about their religious affiliation and motivation than IC has been. For all their talk that they’re the sole saviors of the country, Invisible Children is really a drop in the bucket when it comes to foreign funds and organizations in Uganda.

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