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.
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.