With more than 70-million views so far, Invisible Children’s astoundingly successful viral media campaign has certainly achieved its stated aim of reaching a mass audience. Social media sites have been filled with the pious lamentations of acolytes, convinced they are saving poor kids in Africa by purchasing an “Action Kit” for $30, but the voice of Ugandans and appeals to the reality of Uganda today has been sorely neglected.
The video has also garnered substantial attention in mainstream media. Even without the poetic justice served on Invisible Children’s co-founder late last week, Joseph Kony, the merciless warlord and his troop of mad soldiers have been forced into the news agenda with great alacrity. Almost every major Western news outlet has run some kind of story related to Kony or the Invisible Children campaign in the last 10 days. But for many Ugandans, the people at the centre of this story, the video is overly simplistic and naïve. In the rush to implore Americans to part with their dollars in the name of Uganda, many aggrieved Ugandans feel the video has neglected to douse its story with a call to reality. In the din of outrage vented against the video, Ugandan bloggers, politicians and victims have spoken out against the video, forcing their voices into the discussion.
Social media is of course not the domain of American do-gooders alone. Disgruntled Ugandans have employed the same channels that ensured Invisible Children’s campaign a cult-like popularity. On Saturday, Amama Mbabazi, the Ugandan Prime Minister, launched his own response to the Kony brouhaha on YouTube. There is, however, no pyrotechnics to report – unlike Invisible Children, Mbabazi neglected to consider the merits of filming in High Definition. Speaking for eight minutes at his desk, Mbabazi says he seeks to correct the “well intentioned” video. “It is particularly welcome to see so many young people uniting across barriers of nation, race, religion and culture to take a stand for justice. I salute you and I thank you,” Mbabazi says. He points out, “Joseph Kony is not in Uganda”, and the country is “not in conflict”.
Mbabazi’s counter-campaign has however not been restricted to YouTube. In a flurry of messages posted on Twitter, Mbabazi has graciously invited 20 celebrities, among them Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Rihanna to Uganda. “As [Prime Minister] of Uganda, I appreciate your interest and invite you to visit. We have peace, stability and great people,” he said, using the hashtag #KonyisntinUganda. “I extend the invitation not just to the 20 celebrities, but to you all – come and see Uganda for yourself – you will find a very different place to that portrayed by Invisible Children,” he added.
Mbabazi’s campaign is significant but it also raises uncomfortable questions about the role played by politicians under the yoke of postcolonial realpolitik in influencing the failure of Africans to tell their own stories. From the days of Stanley and Livingstone, Westerners have travelled to Africa and written well-meaning treatises about the natives of Africa for their readership back home. But they were not held accountable for what they wrote. Yes, their motives were eventually questioned, their stories torn apart but they enjoyed the freedom of writing without the disturbance from the object of their narrative.
We’ve moved along some way since then. There is now an immediate contestation of these stories, in traditional media and on social media, the vehicles for these stories. We have within minutes of the video being posted, a chorus of indignation rising from Uganda, taking centre stage saying to the same audience, “We don’t like how we have been depicted.”
The dire lack of an African voice, an African agency in the original video is lamented for re-enforcing the old belief that an African problem hinges entirely on a Western solution to be remedied. Blogger TMS Rugge is especially indignant of the way the video has quashed the African voice in its own story. “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,” he wrote. “Evil is something that is easy to point out from afar. But if we conclude that any one individual/organisation/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.”
For Rugge what is essentially missing from the Kony2012 video is an understanding of the reality of the lives of Kony’s victims. “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,” he says, projecting a picture that is a far cry from the dumb desperation channelled through Invisible Children’s video.
Mwangi S. Kimenyi, director at the Africa Growth Initiative, writing for the Brookings Institutehowever insists concerns that the Kony video undermines the right of Africans to tell their own stories are ill founded. “This concern suggests… that African agency is now somehow fragile while current events throughout the continent indicate otherwise,” he says. Kimenyi believes African voices from Nigeria to Malawi and Uganda to South Africa are setting new trends in local activism and dramatically changing Africa’s political dynamics and public life. He cites the example of the presidential election held in Senegal as an example of the assertion of a fundamentally African voice. “Indeed, just last month, while international actors considered responses to stop Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade from seeking a dubious third term in office, voters and youth-led movements across the country organised vigorous opposition and against the odds beat the aged leader at the ballot box,” he says. “African citizen action is alive and well, and unlikely to be upended by online campaign in the US.”
Despite Kimenyi’s faith in African advocacy, what remains is the significant problem of the depiction of Africa by aid agencies and charities. Campaigns by groups like Invisible Children, who despite the rather questionable behaviour of their co-founder we’d still like to believe is well intentioned, have unfortunately produced a sense of “Africa” for Western audiences. This sense of Africa has differentiated the concept of the West, or indeed the more enlightened world, in relation to this monolith that has come to be known as “Africa”.
And yet the Invisible Children campaign has been astoundingly successful. It has proven rather emphatically the potency of new media campaigns, a potency that has been watched closely by the social media department of Al-Jazeera. “The #Kony2012 video went viral and we all agreed that it’s the best piece of social media advocacy we had seen in a long time and it literally ended up being the best social media campaign of all time judging by the growth rates and eventual viewership,” notes Soud Hyder, project manager on the social media team at Al-Jazeera. But even as social media evangelists applauded the success of the campaign, the nagging questions of its right to tell this story were impossible to ignore. “As much we applaud the production and ‘social media cosmetics’ it was clear that some questions were being asked, these questions were not only being asked internally amongst ourselves and AJ journalists but across the social media world and in Uganda per se,” Hyder says.
Al-Jazeera then launched its own campaign in response to Kony2012, inviting Ugandans to have their say on the matter. If individual Ugandan voices were being drowned out in the greater debate, then Al-Jazeera offered the opportunity for amplification. “After a couple of email exchanges and brainstorms it was agreed that organic voices from Uganda had to be part of the conversation,” Hyder says. And so, “Uganda Speaks” was launched.
Invisible Children however have not taken kindly to attempts to show Ugandans how they have been depicted in the video and indeed draw them into the conversation. After a video report from Al-Jazeera showed outraged Ugandans yelling and throwing rocks in protest after a screening of the video last Tuesday, Invisible Children has lambasted the news network for carrying Ugandan reaction to the video. “Al Jazeera’s reporting was flawed at best and unprofessional at worst,” Invisible Children spokesman Jesse Derris told the New York Daily News. “It lacked context and cohesion, and it was clear that they didn’t do their jobs the way they’re supposed to.”
Most telling however is Derris’ insistence that the video is not meant for a Ugandan audience at all. “The film is meant for a young, American audience. Its point is to make them aware and to spur them toward activism,” she is reported to have said.
It is however impossible to divorce the reception of the video from a Ugandan audience. That’s just not the way the world works.
Even the Ugandan reaction to the video has not been uniform. Hyder notes that Al-Jazeera has received messages of support as well as opposition to the video. “We are yet to finalise the quantitative analysis but generally speaking there have been voices both supportive and critical of the campaign from Uganda,” he says. For Al-Jazeera however, theirs has been a successful campaign. “The most important goal for us was to amplify the voices and opinions from Uganda and bridge them to the global conversation on social media,” Hyder says.
He believes, however, that the emphasis on the need for Ugandan voices to be brought to the discussion has urged Ugandans to raise their own voices as well. “A group of Ugandan bloggers led by Rosebell Kagumire recently setup www.ugandaspeaks.com which goes to show that Ugandans were looking and probably have found an outlet to tell their own narrative,” Hyder notes. “Our goal was just to get their voices out to the global conversation scene regardless of whether or not they supported the campaign.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick from Kampala, Kagumire describes the Uganda Speaks site as a collective effort by a group of Ugandans to assert their right to tell their own story, as well as challenge the stories that are told about them. “It is the effort of a group of young Ugandans who could not believe what the world was ready to believe about Africa,” she said. “You cannot depict a people on video and then say it wasn’t meant for them to see. It is not classified information,” she punches out. Ultimately she believes that narratives of Africa will remain fraught until a significant investment is made in African media, to better equip Africans to tell their own stories.
The Uganda in the Kony2012 video is a far cry from the Uganda rated by Lonely Planet as this year’s top travel destination. “It’s taken nasty dictatorships and a brutal civil war to keep Uganda off the tourist radar, but stability is returning and it won’t be long before visitors come flocking back,” says Lonely Planet. “After all, this is the source of the river Nile – that mythical place explorers sought since Roman times. It’s also where savannah meets the vast lakes of East Africa, and where snow-capped mountains bear down on sprawling jungles. Not so long ago, the tyrannical dictator and ‘Last King of Scotland’ Idi Amin helped hunt Uganda’s big game to the brink of extinction, but today the wildlife is returning with a vengeance.”
What we believe is Uganda, what we believe is “Africa” is a function of the ways in which the plurality of cultures, histories and landscapes of the continent is constructed through the media, literature and indeed video. The scramble for Africa lives on in the contest to define exactly what this continent stands for. DM