Greetings! I have recently returned from a two week excursion to Uganda with my SIT study abroad group. Though we visited a few cities in the south (including Kampala), the majority of time was spent in a northern city called Gulu. The trip was jam-packed with profound site visits, lectures, class discussions, and street food. A few highlights included visiting a refugee settlement (where refugees from over 10 countries reside!), speaking with the District Chairman of Gulu, and taking a safari tour in Queen Elizabeth National Park located in western Uganda.
I want to focus this post on a specific visit to a non-government organization (NGO) called Invisible Children. Invisible Children was responsible for producing “Kony 2012” which is a 30 minute video designed to raise awareness of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the atrocities they have committed. The video takes its name from the group’s charismatic leader Joseph Kony. The LRA is a rebel group originally from Northern Uganda that fought the Ugandan government for 20 years. More recently, the LRA has moved out of Uganda into the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. The group is notorious for its use of child soldiers who are abducted from rural villages and forced to commit horrible crimes.
Kony 2012 received an incredible amount of attention in the United States, particularly from high school and college students. As the video’s popularity skyrocketed via Facebook and YouTube, its controversy also increased. Many people criticized the NGO for simplifying a complex problem, taking the war out of historical context, and sugar-coating the Ugandan government’s role. Others argued the purpose of the video was to raise enough awareness to make Joseph Kony a household name and prompt the United States government into action. You could find a microcosm of the arguments for and against Kony 2012 on Stonehill’s “student2student” listserves. Considering the importance of these questions and criticisms, well done Stonehill.
However, visiting Northern Uganda, speaking with people directly affected by the LRA, and meeting with Invisible Children all have given me new pieces of the puzzle to consider. My study abroad group had two Ugandan lecturers who worked for the local government that said Kony 2012 was the best thing to happen to Northern Uganda. The influx of NGOs and international spotlight can be directly attributed to video. The 100 military personnel that the American government sent at the end of 2012 were instrumental in capturing a top LRA general and putting the LRA on the defense. Many locals of Gulu echoed this opinion. However, the coin has two sides. Despite Invisible Children’s claims that a local showing of Kony 2012 received positive reactions, I spoke with Ugandans who claimed there were riots at the viewing. They believed the video misrepresented the plight of Northern Uganda and was taking advantage of young Americans who wanted to “save the world” by buying a few bracelets and not digging deeper into the issue.
Who is right is a question I have not been able to answer myself. Invisible Children is giving scholarships to over 1000 Ugandan students but the means by which they are doing so is unsettling. What I am certain about is the importance of persistently asking questions of organizations regardless of their good intentions.