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Joseph Kony and the White Man's Burden

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Earlier this week, the non-profit Invisible Children posted "Kony 2012" on youtube and vimeo. Slickly produced and superficially moving, the video purports to raise awareness about the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, and kicks off a campaign to #stopkony. Asking people to donate and buy advocacy kits that will "make Kony famous" by plastering signs and stickers publicly, they tell their (young, mostly white) audience that "[p]eople will think you’re an advocate of awesome." Thanks to a tsunami of tweets from celebs and those of us regular people alike (#stopkony and #stopkony2012 are trending), the kits are now sold out.

The Stop Kony campaign and Invisible Children have subsequently come under fire and have become the focus of pointed, and sometimes angry, criticism for their simplified and outdated take on the conflict - as well as their colonialist approach to "solving" it.  Below find links to some of the best critical articles we've seen (which also contain links to other great articles). And above, Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, weighs in. We'll let her tell her own story. And, to be fair, here is the official response from Invisible Children, which ends with this quote from the "poet" Ke$ha: "we are who we are."

[Editor's note: we included some new sources in the list below on March 22.]

CRITIQUES of #STOPKONY

Ordinary Ugandans are worrying about other things. The government needs a strategy for assessing its capital needs by sector. Should Uganda build an oil refinery or forgo the profits and send crude to Kenya for processing? And if it’s Ugandan children in peril you’re looking for, there are those suffering from “nodding disease” — an unusual neurological disease that’s killed hundreds of children in the very region Kony once terrorized....

...Let’s not amplify and reproduce another narrative of Africa in crisis when Ugandans themselves are moving on.

  • Al Jazeera summarizes the critiques and responses.

"'There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint.' -Yale political science professor Chris Blattman"

"But I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than "making a difference." There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them."

  • Read this blog from Foreign Policy.

"One of the biggest issues with a simplistic "Stop Kony" message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts . But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone? Will they actually stop fighting after Kony is gone? What if they shoot back?"

  • Another great summary of the critiques of #stopkony from the New York Times.

While much of the backlash reported in the American news media this week cited objections raised by development experts in the United States and Europe, several African bloggers and activists have objected to what they see as a more fundamental problem. Among them, the possibility that the “Kony 2012″ campaign reinforces the old idea, once used to justify colonial exploitation, that Africans are helpless and need to be saved by Westerners.

Many African critics of the effort to make Mr. Kony, the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a household name said it echoed the ideas in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” written in 1899 to urge Americans to embrace their imperial destiny and rule over the “new-caught, sullen peoples,” of the Philippines — even though the typical native was “half-devil and half-child.”

  • A New York Times article that points out the more nefarious reasons for the US to send advisers to Africa - which Invisible Children is advocating.

In the New Statesman, Tom Rollins goes further. He fears that “so many people could be duped by a video that explicitly calls for U.S.-led intervention in Central Africa” — which, coincidentally, could make it much easier for the West to gain access to the region’s natural resources.

  • Boing Boing did an excellent job of rounding up articles written by Africans across the continent and within the diaspora.

"The point of the film is absolutely not to encourage deeper questioning of Ugandan governance. The name of Uganda’s Life President Yoweri Museveni is nowhere to be found. Instead the point is to “literally cry your eyes out”, having been moved into a frenzy of moral clarity by the quite revolting mixture of generalised disgust at black Africa, infatuation with white American virtue and technological superiority, and a dose of good old-fashioned blood-lust."

  • Read an interview with Glenna Gordon, photographer of the now infamous photo of Invisible Children founders with SPLA guns.

"I found all of their previous efforts to be emotionally manipulative, and all the things I try as a journalist not to be."

"The problem here is the lack of balance on who speaks for Uganda (and Africa) and how. We need approaches that are strategic and respectful of the local reality, build on the action and desires of local activists and organizers, and act as partners and allies, not owners and drivers."

  • And, on a more humorous note, someone tweeted this age-old gem from  "Stuff White People Like"

"You get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)."

  • Oh, and watch this awesome snark from What's Up Africa, entitled "Sh*t White People Say After Watching #Kony2012 video"

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Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

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Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

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"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

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Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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