Viral video doesn’t represent Ugandans

Kony 2012, which aims to draw attention to warlord Joseph Kony, misses the mark for some of those affected

March 28, 2012 | Young Voices
Amanda Thorsteinsson | Special to Young Voices

The first time Ugandan Stephen Owoni saw Invisible Children’s online video, Kony 2012, he figured it was just another western advocacy video about Africa. He is used to seeing his country represented through the eyes of outsiders.

But it “blew my mind, and I couldn’t believe it,” he says after learning that the video—which aims to “make famous” a Ugandan warlord and bring him to justice—had captured the attention of millions of people around the world.

Invisible Children is an American advocacy organization originally founded in 2004 to raise awareness among North American youth and bring an end to the civil war in northern Uganda being waged by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Its latest advocacy video, Kony 2012, with 112 million views over the course of six days in March, makes it the most viral online video in history.

However, many Ugandans are reacting critically.

“The truth is,” says Owoni, “Kony did these things way back. This video is too late. It was needed 15 years back. People need to understand history before they begin speaking.”

Kony and the LRA have not been in northern Uganda since 2006, a point which the video does not draw out. Kony’s army is now in remote areas of countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. Experts are unclear as to the current size and strength of the army, but the LRA is now believed to number only around 200.

One of the strongest images in the video is that of “night commuters”—children walking each night from their home village into towns “protected” by the Ugandan army to avoid being abducted and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves.

In reality, the “night commuters” pictured are now grown up. “It’s misleading,” says Owoni, a 26-year-old multimedia producer originally from northern Uganda who now lives in the capital of Kampala. “In Uganda, it’s not about that anymore. People need resettlement and rehabilitation. [Invisible Children] are using people’s misery to advance a cause. It’s like rubbing salt in a wound.”

Invisible Children posted a rebuttal to such criticisms on its website: “In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper in learning about the make-up of the LRA and the history of the conflict.”

But many Ugandans feel like the video doesn’t make their voices and stories heard. “Ask any Northerner, and the first thing they say they want is dialogue,” says Owoni. “Every day, even 10 years later, there are parents who long to hug their kid. They still long for the day their kid will come home.”

If people want to help Northern Uganda, “they should support family reconciliation and rehabilitation, not open up wounds of trauma,” he says.

David Otim, 31, is the manager for Mennonite Central Committee’s Ugandan programs. In 2003, the LRA attacked his home region of Teso while he was at university in Kampala. The LRA based its operations out of his family’s home for three weeks, and later burned it to the ground.

“A few days after its release,” says Otim, “someone took the Kony 2012 video to screen for the people of northern Uganda in Lira Town. The organizers wanted to give more people—whom the movie is about—a chance to watch. On seeing the movie, the viewers [mostly youths] got very angry at what they were watching. One youth was heard shouting, ‘Why do you make Kony famous? He is already behind us. They are just making money using our misery.’ ”

Although he is not comfortable with the overall message of Kony 2012, Owoni doesn’t believe the video is beyond redemption. “There are pros and cons,” he says. “I love the opening statements: that human beings are worthy of peace, and everybody can play a role.”

Nevertheless, the overall effect of Kony 2012 for Owoni boils down to another western attempt to frame the African story “as a story of AIDS and war. Yeah, those things are there, but it’s not the whole thing. The image of Uganda is tainted. I love my country. It breaks my heart that all I ever see on CNN and foreign news are these bad things.”

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