A Peace of my mind: Respect my agency 2012!
I have had roughly 24 hours to gather my thoughts about the latest fund-raising stunt undertaken by the long-in-the-tooth Invisible Children (IC) organization. In that time, I have had an opportunity to think and ruminate over exactly what to say, what the right order of the words should be coming out of my soul to address yet another travesty in shepherd’s clothing befalling my country and my continent. Usually I would fly off the handle and let passion fly, but I have grown a little since this and this and this. Addressing the complexity that is Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)’s reign of terror in northern Uganda; what with the sheer volume of victims, the survivors, the horrific examples of humanity at its worst, and the lingering ghosts of family members behind the survivors’ eyes begs a momentary pause, if but to respect the gravity of it all. I do that. I pause. I reflect and I toil with the thought that something is not right in the world that IC is still grasping at relevancy all these years after their “night walkers” campaign.
There is no easy way of saying what I feel right now, except a deep hurt and gnawing urgency to bang my head against my desk as a prescriptive to make the dumb-assery stop. Sure, Joseph Kony and his counterpart of yesteryear, Idi Amin, have largely been responsible for the single story of Uganda. I have a hard time shaking it from the lips of strangers I meet. That’s all they know or seem to want to listen to. They dismissively glaze over my breathless exultations of the great promise in our youth, our technology, our agriculture, and our women.
“Sooo, Idi Amin, huh? That was terrible. Is he still alive?”
It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes. We, Africans, are sandwiched between our historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence. To be properly heard, we must ride the coattails of self-righteous idiocy train. Even then, we have to fight for our voices to be respected.
The latest IC fund-raising cum “awareness-raising” is an insult to my identity and my intellectual capacity to reasonably defend its existence as beneficial to any Ugandan. The video project is so devoid of nuance, utility and respect for agency that it is appallingly hard to contextualize. I won’t even try. Katrin Skaya said all that could have been said, “rarely seen something this stunningly, insidiously, clever crazy. Amazing case study.”
— Elasti Girl (@Katrinskaya) March 7, 2012
Indeed it is. But not for the reasons you would think. This IC campaign is a perfect example of how fund-sucking NGO’s survive. “Raising awareness” (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking—in HD—wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.
Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.
I would love nothing more than to be telling you the small victories we experience working with the very scarred survivors of Kony’s atrocities. The Women of Kireka are the most resilient group of individuals that I know. Spend a day with them and you will wonder how they manage to so calmly describe to you watching their entire families burned alive, their husbands and children hacked to death, in front of them. They do it so calmly, methodically, with such articulate prose that it leaves your soul victimized for it’s privilege. Yet they don’t pause from rolling a perfectly crafted paper bead for a beautiful necklace. They don’t waste their time lamenting the lack of justice for the fallen or the abducted. Why? Because it doesn’t bring back the dead, it doesn’t dissolve the horrific images of their huts burning, or ease the scars borne of running scared into the night.
Instead, they want work and respect and business to be able to make decisions that move their lives along. They want desperately to forget and rebuild anew; thankful for their lives. They want radios and cell phones and grasp at any semblance of normalcy. They cuddle and nurse their newborns like delicate, cherished gifts. What they don’t talk about is justice. They talk about how to forgive and move on.
But I can’t tell you their story. Why? Someone else has taken over their part in this complex saga, simplified it, branded it, packaged it and is reselling it as an Action Kit. For as little as $30 and up to $500, you get your very own pimplicious t-shirt (that was made somewhere other than Uganda or Africa) and various assortments of SWEDOW you won’t care about in a month. But hey! At least you did something!
The academics have weighed in on this debate here, and here, and here and will continue to do elsewhere in the coming days. The click-activists, denied context and nuance, have spewed their ignorance all over the comments section in self-righteous indignation for all the world to see. They have whipped out their wallets and bought their very own Super Hero activist action kits. They have bombarded their friend’s Facebook wall with ignominious updates.
“You must watch this! I already ordered my action kit!”
If we all start from the premise that Kony’s actions over the last 25 years in East and Central Africa are atrocious and he should be stopped, we would be cut of the same moral cloth. Evil is something that is easy to point out from afar. But if we conclude that any one individual/organization/group has the right to hijack the voice of so many in the name of good, then I have a common sense pill to sell you.
Let me be honest. Africa is not short of problems, epidemics and atrocities. But it is also true that it is not short of miracles, ingenuity, and a proclivity to surprise. We as Africans, especially the Diaspora, are waking to the idea that our agency has been hijacked for far too long by well-meaning Western do-gooders with a guilty conscious, sold on the idea that Africa’s ills are their responsibility. This particular affliction is called “white man’s burden” in some circles. Please don’t buy into this. Africa’s problems are our own. I asserted as much almost 5 years ago when I started Project Diaspora.
And so to you we send this solemn pledge. No longer are we satisfied with the status quo. No longer will we look to the West and the East for a saviour to come. We here claim our political struggles as our own; our short comings as our own; our unrest as our own; our dissidence as our own; our broken infrastructure as our own; our diseases as our own; our uneducated as our own; our corruption as our own; our unfed children as our own.
We have to be given due courtesy to at least try to develop capacities adequate enough to address our issues. We will never develop that capacity to do so if IC and others think selling Action Kits delivers utopia. It didn’t change our way of life when IC started, and it certainly isn’t going to change our reality when the clock expires on December 31st.
I am coherent enough to realize when someone is trying to genuinely do good. At the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with assuming that the people who you are trying to help 1) need help, 2) want your help, or 3) can’t help themselves. IC and this video assumes all the above. Before anyone says ‘why haven’t you done anything to stop Kony?’, may I point out that it took the world’s most sophisticated army over a decade and billions of dollars to catch Osama bin Laden. Kony has been on the run for 25+ years. On a continent 3 times the size of America. Catching & stopping him is not a priority of immediate concern. You know what is? Finding a bed net so that millions of kids don’t die every day from malaria. How many of you know that more Ugandans died in road accidents last year (2838) than have died in the past 3 years from LRA attacks in whole of central Africa(2400)? We’ve picked our battles and we chose to simply try to live. And the world should be helping us live on our own terms, by respecting our agency to choose which battles to put capacity towards.
I’ve never heard of Germans running NGOs in [the United States of] America to try and fix the economy or Swedish NGOs in America trying to fix the declining standard of living. Africa is our problem, we hereby respectfully request you let us handle our own matters. We will make mistakes here and there, sure. That is expected. But the trade-off of writing our own destiny far outweighs the self-assigned guilt the world assigned to us. If you really want to help, keep the guilt and charity in your backyard. Bring instead, respect, and the humility to let us determine our destiny.