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Searching for Closure: A Kony2012 Postscript

Solome Lemma (@InnovateAfrica) and I hosted a live discussion today to reflect together on the issues that came up from our posts on #StopKony. Below is our conversation, unedited. Thanks to those who joined us, Iris (@frabjuosity), @Semhar, and @coryjscott. You’ll see their comments below as well. A special thanks to Joop Rubens for sharing the beautiful images of visible African children below.

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Jennifer: There is much to be processed after the #StopKony reactions. I’ve been thinking about what’s the appropriate follow-up and have a couple of ideas. What are yours?

Solome: It has indeed been an incredible week. There is so much to be processed. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to pause and reflect, which for an introvert like me is critical. I have also been thinking about follow-up activities and posts…so many ideas there…but the one that stands out most strongly is the fact that Ugandans are raising their voices and speaking on the issue, and I want to support that voice.

Photo by Joop Rubens

Jennifer: Exactly! I had thought about not writing anything myself, but creating a respository of Ugandan responses to Kony2012. @whydev has theirs (see it here) but people have been visiting the How Matters Facebook page specifically in order to find grassroots perspectives.

Solome: …and I think that’s were you and I add value. Given our experiences and background, we can share information on the work of local activists and organizations in Northern Uganda that are at the heart of the change that is taking place in their communities.

Jennifer: Solome & I have both worked for international grantmakers who focus on providing small grants to local, indigenous organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Solome: So, what next? Where do we take this conversation and what’s our role, especially as people who are not Ugandan but are allies and partners?

Jennifer: In the last week I’ve been thinking a lot about “voice“, as well as people’s “right” to information. On one Twitter conversation I had, I asked a follower why his “awareness” about Joseph Kony was so important. I mean, how or why does HIS awareness bring change? Joseph Kony’s war crimes are not new information. I’m struggling with what I think is a conflation of information/awareness/power that’s going on with this campaign. Ugandans have been aware of Joseph Kony for a long time (with accruate, contextualized information)…seems obvious, but it’s important to probe deeper on these issues.

Solome: That’s a great point. It’s about the west’s relationship with information and it’s also about the west’s relationship with the rest of the world…it’s about the belief that western awareness and engagement is necessary to bringing about change…that the west is critical to any transformation that takes place anywhere in the world…and the video feeds that sense of entitlement, power, and privilege by putting Americans at the center of change in just 30 minutes.

Jennifer: It’s also about how this “new” info creates actions. What we’re talking about here are international judicial processes.

I have a friend that I always argue with about this point. She always says to me, playing the devil’s advocate, on this “awareness” issue. She’s the first to remind me that people don’t always want to “go deep.”

Solome: It’s true that people don’t always want to go deep, as your friend states. But, there is a way to offer information and to raise awareness responsibly, by telling a more complete and accurate story and respecting the agency of affected communities to tell their own.

And on that point of awareness raising, I hear a lot of people say, at least they’re doing something…at least they’re informing people. Well, I do support awareness raising activities, but raise awareness on the right things, on facts and realities.

Photo by Joop Rubens

Iris: As well as that, I think one of the central things here is that it’s difficult to argue that awareness is not a good thing – but it’s important to distinguish WHO it’s actually good for. It’s probably good for Western people to be aware of these issues, just for their own understandings of the world – but the problem comes from saying that them being aware is going to in itself have an impact on African people’s lives…

Jennifer: Exactly – it’s over-empowerment, and it puts the “outsiders” as the central figure of the story. Nick Kristof argues again and again that this is the way to get the housewife from Des Moines to care about these issues. I don’t buy it. I think people are smarter than that and if given the opportunity, are completely capable of engaging their hearts AND their minds.

Solome: Couldn’t agree anymore with your statement! Absolutely. And may I just add that even in holding this conversation, I am struggling with my role…are we replacing an important role…should we have offered this platform to Ugandans who are advoacting on the IC fall out right now? Are we taking attention away from their voices?

At times I feel like this campaign is about Americans. It’s about making Americans feel connected to the world. It’s about making Americans feel like after years of taking a hit on the foreign policy front, they can finally do somehting and do it right. It’s actually quiet the lowest hanging fruit, isn’t? Take down a guy who is already isolated and feel good in a short period of time when you do so, though you weren’t necessarily part of the 25+ year struggle to get to this point. Now, taking on places like Syria and others where citizens are being attacked as we speak, that’s much harder. It doesn’t bring about immediate gratification. Americans need to feel hope and inspiration and that they are agents of change again, and this does so relatively easily.
Jennifer: So are we more tolerant of complexity of conflict in other places? It’s so funny you say you even struggle with this conversation Solome. That’s exactly why I thought of just having Ugandan responses on how-matters.org. The problem with that is…there’s a bunch of people that don’t even yet know that that’s the information they should be seeking out. How do we address that gap? Can the media hype machine behind IC be unleashed for more grounded narrative as well? Can we make poverty “cool” too? How do we make local non-profits in Uganda the latest trending topic? Or can we? Or do we even want to?

Solome: Great questions. Let’s not make poverty and conflict “cool.”

Jennifer: Smacks of 3 Cups of Tea & Toms Shoes, no?
Solome: Let’s make agency, complexity, authenticity…let’s find sexier ways of bringing those to the forefront of the public. I believe Ugandans are starting a #UgandaSpeaks, let’s use that hashtag to share information on the local organizaitons we both know about. And, perhaps, let’s do a joint blog on local organizations, how to find them, how to support them, and why they matter. This information can be used by many when they discuss the IC Kony campaign.

Cory: Low-hanging fruit is exactly what I said… like who knows whether he’d have been caught within the year regardless. It would then legitimise their effort, to the detriment of the greater cause.

‘Sexiness’ is hard, eh? It’s hard to get a conversation going around complex issues. This is largely how political systems are so polarised – one group reduces a point to its essence, ignoring anything that might go over a person’s head. Almost better just leaving them ‘unaware’, no?

Photo by Joop Rubens

Solome: That’s a great point, Cory. As Semhar says, perhaps we can create space for complexity if we stick to campaigns on issues that the constituency has a direct stake in- they’ll seek, know, and find the complexities there.

Jennifer: I was just thinking about turning this whole thing on its head. What if East African university students got all up in arms about a case here in the U.S., say a teenager on death row, and then campaign to have him freed. Americans would not accept that interference in our judicial system. So why should we assume that Ugandans want or need our attention on this issue?

Cory: They’d be told to STFU! (I assume, I’m not American.) :)
Solome: LOL…exactly. I keep on telling supporters of the campaign, how would you feel if they took on your issue without your engagement? But, this takes me back to the almost globaly accepted approach of paternalism towards Africa and Africans.
Cory: @tmsruge made the point in his post about agency re: Germans coming to fix US economy. It’s true. And therein lies that ‘assumption’ that they are doing something better than Ugandans, or that they have the wherewithal that is otherwise lacking.

Semhar: The hard part about this campaign is that it is galvanizing a constituency to care about people’s suffering but they are not direct stakeholders. What if this was a campaign not for human rights and conflict, but for the environment, animal rights, climate change? Would there be as much criticism? This is troubling to many because it’s not a balanced formula for change. U.S. constituency for ending mass atrocities cannot be done alone.

I would have rather seen a global call to action, working with constituencies/voters/groups on a global scale, starting first with African regional voices partnering with US and other groups. I remember even on Darfur, they learned eventually that for it to truly be global, they had to focus on global partners, starting with local voices. It was called Globe for Darfur I think.  It came a little too late though, SDC’s brand, constituency and target was too U.S. based.
Solome: Great point, Semhar. I have been thinking about the Darfur movement as it relates to this. I am wondering if the Save Darfur folks are reaching out to and talking with IC. Great conversations to be had about lessons.
Jennifer: Yes Semhar. I was also comparing this to U.S. students’ involvement in calling for sanctions against the apartheid regime. That did make a difference. And it wasn’t focused on villians. It was focused on heroes – Biko, Mandela, and SO many others. And it was grounded in that awareness that we all “insiders” and “outsiders” could come together in support of self-determination.
Solome: So, what do we take away from this week? The campaign will run for a year and I have no doubt they will continue to produce creative ways of awareness raising. How do we move the conversation forward in a constructive manner? We will be dealing with this and more for the coming year, so what’s the alternative narrative? What’s the story that we want to continue to share? What bridges do we need to build across all the communities that have been galvanized?

Semhar: Well first – the structure of the campaign. Timing: It’s a year long, but the first target date is April 20, in one month. What happens after that? Does this have anything to do with the presidential election this year? If so, when is that rolling out?  There’s so much splash, leaves you wanting to know more (another good aspect of this campaign). but expectations are so high. We have yet to hear what happens after April.  If this was truly intended to target USG, then it should have had a limited national focus and not leaving viewers with the impression this is global.

Secondly, at this point, with all the advocacy examples we have, we know what “formula” works for advocacy strategies, especially focursed on Africa. It must have clear asks (they did), clear targets (USG & American cultural icons), and a clear coalition of voices (which it completely missed). The Sudan, DRC advocacy groups, the humanitarian groups, the faith-based groups, the African and African-American groups, where were they in this call to action? Two partners of IC is not enough (Resolve & Enough). I wanted to see the logos, signed letters, collective buy-in and call to action from the same groups who were there for Sudan, DRC, and the rest of Africa.
Solome: Agree and given the length of the campaign, they have an opportunity to own the mistakes and build bridges with all these communities. Question is will they? Look forward to their response.
Cory: I’ve just read that IC will be releasing another video in response to criticism, indicating to me that they’re not necessarily of the opinion that their efforts are misguided.
Solome: Interesting, this is an opportunity for them to step up as leaders and build bridges, be open to conversation, and own their limitation.
Cory: Absolutely. And they even said that the video was ‘intentionally’ simplified in its messaging to allow for broader appeal. I don’t buy that. They provide no mechanism or infrastructure for furthering the average viewer’s knowledge. It was intended on their part, I’m quite certain. So that, to me, makes it even worse that they’d try to co-opt the critiques as being part of the plan.

Photo by Joop Rubens

Solome: As we come to the end of our conversation, what’s next for all of you in this? How will you continue (if you choose to) to address this issue or the conversations that came from it?

Jennifer: Another question, how do we spur or inspire a collective evolution? No one is questioning the need for compassion and engagement in issues of injustice around the world. How do we take “awareness” beyond just Step 1?
Cory: I mean, to me, I look at it as… yes, these are terrible atrocities. But the only way it got attention (through the video) was by appealing to people who are otherwise desensitised by the way we live here in the western world. Bad things happen everywhere, and there’s a bit of an incongruence in how we can react emotionally to this video, and yet, be so cold and indifferent to the atrocities that happen more locally. The world needs to address what’s happening in their backyard before presuming they know better than the ‘other’. And so… for me, it’s trying to foster that conversation. I have no illusions that I will make a difference elsewhere on my own, or that telling or sharing a video will change anything. It’s kind of a global change that needs to occur, but locally.
Jennifer: Yes, there are many other issues going on in the world currently. People need to examine why this one is more important to them than what’s next door. Perhaps the further away an issue from your day-to-day life, the simpler it can be. Child soldiers in the bush is something very, very far from a U.S. college student’s reality.
Solome: Precisely, also when you address problems in your backyard, you have to examine your culpability in creating or sustaining those problems in ways you don’t have to when the problem is afar and people do not need to confront the role they may have played.
Cory: Absolutely. For the average college student in the US, I think recognising the role that their own government (or elsewhere, even) have played directly and indirectly over the years that have caused many of these situations is almost more important that being ‘aware’ of how it is now. It can help prevent it from happening again, and again.
Jennifer: For people in Northern Uganda, who have been rebuilding their lives and their country for years, I think much of this will be forgotten by the end of the year. This is just a breeze. They are the roots. That is the comfort, the truth, for me to cling to amidst the chaos.
Solome: For me, I would love to see the surfacing of voices from Northern Uganda to the forefront of this conversation. Not just us, or Diaspora Ugandans, but people who are on the ground. I would love to see a counter campaign where they share their priorities and needs in their own voices through video, pictures, audio or short text..would love to see a website that stores this information and we from this end help with making it go viral.
Jennifer: Speaking for myself, I’m really proud to have been part of representing the MANY voices who said, “Hey, this isn’t so simple and we need to examine our role in this.” My blog post had over 17,000 hits – @InnovateAfrica’s even more I’m sure! Hindsight here is great, but what I’m hopeful about at the end of the day is that so many people were focused on having or searching for insight (unsatisfied with the simple narrative) on #Kony2012.
Solome: Absolutely agree, Jennifer. Thank you for organizing this discussion. I am glad that we all have access to social media outlets today to be able to tell our version of stories and we aren’t as limited anymore by lack of access to public platforms. In that vein I hope we continue to use the inspiration that came out of this to insert and amplify these alternative voices and perspectives.  Thanks all and have a great day!
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Solome: You took 30 minutes to watch the IC video? Please, please take 20 more minutes to watch this beautiful documentary on Hope North, a Ugandan organization that is working with children affected by the conflict. This video tells the story with dignity, complexity, humanity, agency, and just sheer beauty. It is AMAZING–you will be moved for all the right reasons. Even if you choose to support the IC campaign, please see this video to get a more complete picture of the situation you’re advocating on. The filmmaker raised the money on his own to tell this very important story in a beautiful and respectful way. Now that’s what it means to be a partner and ally. 
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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Hi! I’m Iris who (very, very briefly) participated in the discussion – my Twitter handle is @frabjuosity. :)

    Great discussion – I particularly like this quote, which encapsulates something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: “Perhaps the further away an issue from your day-to-day life, the simpler it can be.” I think it’s simply the fact that you’re very aware of the complexity, frustration and seeming futility of your own situation and the problems you’re facing – but it’s a lot more difficult to imagine other people’s lives and situations as complexly. So you get American (or any other nationality for that matter) students with no will/drive to change problems in their own countries, who think that they can “save Africa” by buying a bracelet and putting up some posters.

    I don’t know what the solution is to that problem… but to me, it goes a long way to explaining the popularity of KONY 2012 and similar simplistic “save the world in one click/clink in the donation box”-type narratives.

  2. 2

    Jennifer,

    A wonderful conversation and a very moving video. Thank you for lending How Matters to this very important conversation


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