Monday, March 26, 2012


At the beginning of this month the video Kony2012 was uploaded on to Youtube.

The video uses the plight of “night commuters” thousands of children who fled the surrounding villagers and descended on Gulu by night to escape possible abduction from their homes, to highlight the savagery of the LRA.

The video’s promoters have unabashedly called for more military aid to the affected nations to put rebel leader Joseph Kony out of action once and for all.

By the time of writing this article, the 30-minute video had been watched more than 84 million times, the video literally went viral.

The producers were hoping for 500,000 viewers when they uploaded the video. But a combination of strong emotional cues – read suffering children, the suggestion that viewers could make a difference by passing it on and the roping in celebrities from Justin Bieber to Oprah Winfrey to transmit the video, all made it possible for it to become the most viral upload in history.

However criticism of the video has also come in fast and thick as well.

The detractors have rounded off on how the video has simplified the suffering of the people in northern Uganda during the two decade long civil war and also how things have moved on, that the video is not relevant to the present time.

You know what they say, if you wake up and find your friend is an overnight success know he has not been asleep.

The footage from the video dates back to 2003 when a trio of US youth – Jason Russell, Bob Bailey and Laren Poole stumbled upon the “night commuters” after a failed bid to document the southern Sudan civil war.

Touched by the plight of these kids trapped in a war that was none of their making and with seemingly no sight in end, at least according to these “parachute” journalists, the young men went back to the US and started a campaign in campuses and highschools to spotlight the kids plight and rally support for a more determined effort against Kony.

They reached hundreds of thousands of children with their video and by 2008 it had become the top foreign policy issue for US students, according to Time magazine, on par with the anti-apartheid campaign of an earlier generation.
Since then Kony became the first individual to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, the US congress has passed a law directly targeted at the LRA and President Barack Obama has sent 100 special-operations troops to help bring Kony to book.

So the video’s recent success on social media was not an overnight success. In fact it is a perfect case study for the “tipping point” phenomenon.

Truth be told, by the time the filmmakers happened on the LRA insurgency in 2003 it was on its last feet in northern Uganda. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the subsequent isolation of the Khartoum regime – Kony’s backers for a long time and Uganda’s withdrawal from the DRC all conspired to ensure that the LRA’s days were numbered.

The video and the reaction to it makes one think.

To begin with Africa’s issues cannot gather much traction in western conscious unless we play to the stereotype that they can relate to: of war, disease, poverty and blood thirsty big men. The filmmakers played to this stereotype and while it offended our delicate African sensibilities, they got the more than the desired reaction from their target audience – the youth of America.

But isn’t that how you tell a good story? You find the audience where it is with its preset prejudices and misconceptions and graft your tale on, if you don’t you lose them.

It’s a classic case of does the end justify the means?

Secondly it is clear that the main stream media will never give Africa’s message a chance. It is telling that these middle class youth had had no inkling of the LRA and Kony in 2003 more than a decade after the insurgency begun, despite it having been reported intermittently on western media.

Fortunately the proliferation of social media today may give our stories a fair shake. We can circumvent the traditional media and get our message straight to the opinion leaders in western capitals.

And finally this story is a good illustration of the fact that no meaningful achievement comes without work driven by a far sighted conviction.

You may criticize Invisible Children’s co-founder Russell for his lack of appreciation of the nuances of the conflict and championing a cause he knows little or nothing about. You may criticize him for trying to bankroll his NGO with proceeds from the video – I heard they had already racked in about $5m. You may even criticising him of overlaying a good guy-bad guy Hollywood script on real human suffering.

But you cannot criticize him for not backing up his passion with action in the best way he and his friends knew how, something you cannot accuse some of the “leaders” nearer the action.

I suspect some of our averse reaction to the video is our sense of guilt at being unable to raise as much awareness – however slanted, about a situation that we lived with for years.

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