The Kony Kerfuffle

The Kony Kerfuffle,” New York Times, 9 March 2012.

“Kony 2012″ is a distraction from issues Ugandans care about.

DJIBOUTI — The only person I’ve ever met who was in the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.) is a Ugandan man named Francis. He was abducted by the group sometime in the late 1990s, when he was a teenager, and forced to march from central Uganda to what is now South Sudan. During a firefight with the Ugandan national army, Francis escaped with his best friend. They had never spoken aloud. The L.R.A. enforced silence on marches.

The older Francis is a soldier again. But he isn’t in Uganda. He’s in Iraq. Like many well-trained local fighters, he’s gone to fill the vacuum left after the United States military fled its war of choice.

I met Francis only once, last summer, in passing, but “Kony 2012” made me remember his story. The viral video by the American nonprofit Invisible Children showcases Joseph Kony, the madman at the helm of the L.R.A. who has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The video calls for his arrest this year and for public pressure on the U.S. military to stay in the hunt. Thanks to it, some 50 million viewers, mostly non-Ugandans who understood nothing of Kony, now have the knowledge to despise him as much as a generation of Northern Ugandan families.

Except that hardly anyone in Uganda is talking about him. I spent most of February in Kampala and environs, and there Kony was a whisper on nobody’s lips. Even since the United States sent 100 Special Forces (pdf) to Central Africa in the fall to assist in the chase, both he, and the L.R.A., remain far from a mainstream concern.

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.

In an earlier post I wrote about the Ugandan government’s gay-bashing as a smokescreen for other issues facing this society, especially governmental corruption. The Kony video is a similar distraction.

In Kampala last month, I met Hadijah Nankanja, the local director of Women of Kireka, a collective of women touched by Kony’s marauding violence. This was my second encounter with the group, which makes and sells jewelry made from paper beads, pooling savings among the women. Last March, I had spent an afternoon with 20-some artisans, happy to have income-generating activity to banish thoughts of past terror. A few women have since splintered off looking for more lucrative work.

Hadijah and I tried to come up with a way forward. Food production? Without refrigeration, distribution would be a problem. Tailoring? The investment in sewing machines was too great. Hair salons? The market appeared saturated. And so forth. We didn’t come up with a concrete plan, but opening a small restaurant seemed to be the front-running proposition.

Our informal brainstorming session took about the same time as does watching “Kony 2012.” I dare suggest that time spent marshaling such reserves of imagination, communion and capital to support jobs for displaced victims is far more helpful than this sort of advocacy. The kinds of problems Hadijah is trying to understand and solve are less sexy than the horror stories trailing behind Kony. But they are the nut worth cracking.

Unfortunately, the mundane march of progress in poor countries is what “awareness” campaigns often miss. And when, as in this case, success is determined by action from outside the region, cries of a new imperialism should be taken seriously. Few international NGOs working in Africa define success properly — as putting themselves out of business. Invisible Children seems no better.

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

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