by Daniel Fan and Emily Rice
In March 2012, Invisible Children Inc. released a short film calling for the arrest of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa. The film quickly achieved viral status, receiving much attention from the media along with passionate endorsements from several celebrities. The following month, Kony 2012 posters started appearing in our neighborhood on telephone poles along major arteries. Kony’s invisible antagonists had come to town. But was their effort one of justice or subtle exploitation?
When we examine a movement like Invisible Children’s Kony 2012, we have to ask “whose voice is being heard?” In a film that is 1,799 seconds long, Africans (excluding one who is on the Invisible Children payroll) receive only 207 seconds of air time (11.5% of the film). At the same time, the director’s 5-year old son, Gavin, who had never been to Africa, receives 174 seconds of exposure (9.7%). In an interview in the film, Massachusetts 3rd District Representative Jim McGovern explicitly states that Invisible Children “were determined to become their [Africans’] voice.” The film’s narrative makes it clear that allowing the voice of Africans to speak for themselves was not the goal.
The name “Invisible Children” is itself the subject of some irony. It’s ironic that “invisible” “children” should be represented so omnipresently by one very visible white man. It’s ironic that the all the victims of Kony’s aggressions – including adults – should be categorized by Americans as “children” given the long history of colonials casting Africans and other colonized people of all ages as children. Finally, it’s supremely ironic that Jason Russell recognizes the African protagonist’s English skills only a few minutes into the film, yet proceeds to speak for Jacob for most of the remaining 25 minutes. The few statements by Jacob in the film are employed only as emphatic punctuations to Jason’s narrative.
In contrast to Kony 2012’s portrayal, Africans already have powerful voices of their own and ideas on how to deal with the problems that they face. Many Africans, Ugandans in particular, found the White Savior tone of the film offensive and utterly ignorant of the active presence of locally-led efforts to seek justice and healing within their communities. During an outdoor screening of the film in Northern Uganda, viewers were so upset with its portrayal of their story that they threw rocks at the screen. Some in the audience who were victims of the LRA were displeased with Invisible Children’s decision to emblazon Joseph Kony’s visage on t-shirts and posters1. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist responded to the film by stating “it simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda and makes out a narrative that is often heard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict.” She continues “if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story; you shouldn’t be telling my story.”
The Kony 2012 posters in our neighborhood proclaimed their vision to be “one thing we can all agree on.” Deploying the iconography of the elephant and donkey is clearly meant to invoke American political unity. But let’s dig deeper and ask ourselves a few questions. Why should all Americans unite in support of an initiative that Ugandans themselves can’t agree with? Why can’t Americans support a Ugandan-led initiative seeking justice and restoration within their own communities? Are we Americans hellbent on leading (or dragging) Ugandans into our definition of their liberation? Are we only willing to conceptualize justice when a white man is telling the story and prescribing solutions? And why are we fixated on a definition of justice that begins and ends with the capture and extradition of one man? Is justice purely punishment; or could it include the restoration of community?
Konylonialism isn’t the theft of bodies, sex, land, or minerals: it’s the exploitation of a people’s story—taking their collective narrative and retelling in Western terms, for the benefit of Westerners. How can usurping someone’s agency, their inherent right to tell their own story, possibly result in their liberation?
Neither of us say that people need to “get over” stuff very often, however here’s one place it must happen: Americans need to get over their own good intentions. Good intentions do not justify taking someone else’s story, inserting yourself (or your son) into it, telling it as your own and benefiting from that retelling. Colonials exploited Africa for its human and natural resources and now a new breed of colonials are exploiting Africa’s narrative, hoarding attention away from those actually experiencing the injustice. African author Teju Cole, in his incisive essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” writes “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.”
Sadly, Konylonialism is not new. It is a well-established paradigm among social justice movements. It is also a paradigm that we must question, or else we will consume it. And once we consume it, it becomes a part of our own narrative making us complicit in that same sordid thread of exploitation, silencing, and continued injustice.
We all have a responsibility to work towards justice in our world, especially those of us with privilege. But in working towards justice we must be mindful to not diminish the voices of the oppressed peoples whom we claim to be “liberating.” We ought to heed Paolo Friere’s call to commit ourselves to becoming allies that “fight at their side” in solidarity instead of placing our own voices at the center of the story.