Invisible Children and Joseph Kony
You may have heard of the little film titled Invisible Children that came out in 2006 documenting the Lord’s Resistance Army and their kidnappings of children. It took the media world’s attention and ran with it, generating millions of dollars for their newly formed NGO, Invisible Children.The aim was to shine a spotlight on the atrocities, to bring people’s attention to what was happening – hence the title, Invisible Children. They were going to make these children visible.
I became aware of the film shortly after it was released as many in the Church took on the cause of raising money for Invisible Children, screening the film, etc… The filmmakers exploded onto the media and humanitarian scene, creating apparel (their store is now selling ‘action kits’), holding large events, and marketing in all corners – all ostensibly for the benefit of children in Northern Uganda, often centered around the Acholi people and even more so an area named Gulu, where the LRA leader Joseph Kony is from (I attended a church that held a ‘Gulu Walk’ mimicking the children’s flight).
Now, they’re out with a new film titled, Kony – which has again gone massively viral.The aim of the film, according to Invisible Children, is to “make Joseph Kony famous…to raise support for his arrest”.
The problem? From the beginning to now, the goal was premised on a White desire to save downtrodden Africa regardless of facts. The movies are premised on the idea that: North American (White) attention will save Africa. I wrote about this same thing in regards to Nick Kristof and the logic goes like this:
White people only care about White people and the only way to save Black people is to get White people to care about them, so to save Black people we need to talk about White people.
But the problem is even bigger than this. It feeds into the public perception of what Africa is. It’s full of war, famine and rape. Its people can’t help themselves.
Kony and his atrocities are nothing new; they’ve been happening for a long time. There have been numerous very public policy discussions within North America about how best to deal with Kony but he’s elusive, he knows how to run and really governments in North America are minimally interested. To the people in the area he terrorizes, they have had conversations about how to deal with Kony & how to deal with things bigger than Kony – malaria, disease, education, society. I have an Acholi colleague who is researching education in conflict/post-conflict Acholiland. They care, they know, they’re researching and problem solving – this is nothing new, Kony is already infamous. So what will educating White people do?
Some will say, what’s the problem with bringing attention to the atrocities? This is a good thing, now people will know and do something. Who cares if it is White people, Black people, or Purple people who do it?
One problem: It falls into the trap, the belief that the problem is ignorance and the answer is education. When we tell more people about Kony and the LRA, something WILL happen. It’s not true. Bono, Bob Geldolf, Angelina Jolie and thousands of others have brought more attention, more education, more money to issues – it doesn’t solve them. White ignorance is not the problem. White colonialism/oppression/domination/violence (whatever you want to call it) in the past and present is. It is built on the idea that Africa needs saving – that it is the White man’s burden to do so. More education does not change the systems and structures of oppression, those that need Africa to be the place of suffering and war and saving.
It’s also about history. White folk have for centuries built industries on saving Black people in Africa. In creating images of what Africans look like, in order to justify saving them. Is it any coincidence that all of the filmmakers and subsequent heads of the NGO are white? Is it any coincidence that, despite ‘partnering’ with local people, on Invisible Children’s website, in a colonial-esque era division, that the White people involved in the organization are framed in a modern, neutral (White) room in ‘hip’ fashion while the Africans all have straw huts in the background? No, the ideal African still lives in huts! They’re exotic and poor. This is all no surprise when we bring history into the picture.
Part of this is the centering of our Western vision and logic. The very idea of ‘Invisible’ is ludicrous – these children were never invisible to their communities and families – only to us. It harkens back to the ‘unspoilt’ land of the new worlds where ‘no one had ever been before’ and which completely ignored the lives and realities of the Indigenous people, the Africans who had lived there for centuries before – who knew everything there was to know about this ‘untouched’ land. It is the re-centering of the West and the glossing over of those whose lives are being impacted most. We need to learn: It’s not about us. Race does matter for this reason, because of how it is constituted by history and continues to shape how we view the world.
There are other critiques about where the money that is raised goes, the filmmakers are just kids with no idea how to distribute aid, whether aid is really effective in solving problem, that Kony is long gone from Uganda, etc… They are all relevant but huge issues in themselves. This article is about representation and how Invisible Children erases local realities while purporting to showcase them. It’s about those people who watch the film and believe awareness is the answer to solving the problems. Raising awareness is our generation’s pat on the back, our absolution of guilt, our mechanism for maintaining our neo-liberal, do-good Whiteness which separates us from those OTHER horrible people who ‘do nothing’. We believe making a film or watching a film changes systems of oppression, patterns of violence, or centuries of colonial erasure. That is what this article is about.
For those of faith who are supporting Invisible Children, some bigger questions to think on regarding love and charity.
I’ve posted an interview with a Ugandan colleague of mine, getting his perspective on Kony. You can read it here.
I’ve also added a second post looking at the some of the reactions to critique and looking a little deeper at certain issues. You can read it here.
And a final post on different ways to think about Africa and ways forward.