The Oppressive Silencing: Page 2 of 2
If the critics of KONY2012 are anything to go by, the relative lack of African (specifically northern Ugandan) voices in the efforts to apprehend Joseph Kony was and is insulting to the memory of those who have worked so hard and sometimes died to bring peace to the region. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARPLI) has been at the forefront of a negotiated peace settlement and amnesty for formerly abducted children. One of the founders, Archbishop Macleod Baker Ochola, who lost his wife and daughter to the violence of that war, has never stopped insisting on peaceful negotiations, rather than the military intervention that Invisible Children seems to insist is an option. The idea that it is Invisible Children that can effect change on its own as long as it has an army of well-meaning young people at its beck and call stifles the efforts of those who have been at this work without the benefit of world adulation or financial benefit. Advocacy workers and NGOs have been caught at the crux of this controversy and have had to ask some tough questions about their work: How much awareness can affect change? How much money should be moved away from efforts on the ground towards creating a loud digital presence? Is it worth it? Does local agency take away the emotional pull of potential donors? Must Africans be portrayed as voiceless in order to get any attention in the west? Is there an inverse relationship between African voicelessness and the empowerment of the target audience which buys into the idea that they can be saviors, the only hope for these starving, victimized and terrorized people?
It is probably the circumstances that gave rise to these situations that we should spend some time on. We need to focus on the current challenges faced by the people of northern Uganda (if their images must be the main feature of Invisible Children’s work), rather than the perpetuation of a macabre legend that we from northern Uganda want to forget. Evelyn Apoko, herself a victim of the LRA, spoke eloquently on CNN in the first few days after KONY2012: “I would be glad to see the faces of the children who are being abducted - to make those kids become well-known to the people around the world, not the face of Joseph Kony.” She argued that as the abductor of thousands of children, Joseph Kony did not deserve the celebrity status that the Invisible Children seemed to confer to him. Joseph Kony is already infamous. He was already known to most, if not all the American politicians in Congress, seeing as they signed a bi-partisan agreement to send 100 troops to northern Uganda almost half a year before the release of KONY2012. How callous would it be to have millions of young people wearing t-shirts with the image of Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or Bashar Al-Assad in celebration - in order to “make them famous?" Dead or alive, people who have proven that they are responsible for other people’s suffering should not be propeled to stardom and celebrity. That’s just not right.
The truth is that many have sought for and given their lives for peace and healing in northern Uganda. The efforts to make Joseph Kony famous might have been better placed in remembering the actions of Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, for instance. In October 2000, when Ebola disease was transported to northern Uganda via the body of a dead soldier, that outbreak, in the midst of war, no less, threatened to wipe out the people of that region and the medical personnel who were the fastest casualties of the disease. Doctors and nurses had to be protected, as did the people who were in the hospital who were working with very little support in terms of human or medical supplies. While others left to save their lives and the lives of others through their survival, Dr. Lukwiya refused to leave. He caught the disease and died while still trying to help. He should be famous. He should be on the t-shirts worn by millions of people across the world.
Sister Rakele, who risked her life going after the students who had been kidnapped by the LRA, should be more famous than Joseph Kony. It was the third time, that October in 1996, that the LRA had attacked St. Mary’s High School in Aboke, when 139 students were taken in the middle of the night, after having celebrated the Ugandan Independence holiday during that day. The first time, Sister Rakele had negotiated the release of all fifteen girls who’d been taken by the LRA. That October night, the LRA left with thirty girls and Sister Rakele returned with 109. She cannot forgive herself for failing to save the 30 who remained. Sister Rakele should be more famous than Joseph Kony. Angelina Atyam, one of the founding members of the Concerned Parent’s Association, which advocates for the protection and rights of war affected families in northern Uganda, should be famous. Member of Parliament for Kitgum, Beatrice Anywar, also known as Mama Mabira, led the protests against the planned descecration by deforestation of the jeweled Mabira forest and has, of late, spearheaded the campaign to get attention for the children suffering from nodding disease. She should be made famous. Needless to say, over twenty years of war marks a land and its people. We are scarred in more ways than we can imagine, but even then, we know that some will continue to try to silence us - in the claim that they speak for us, tell our stories, and invariably profit from our images while shoring their careers with the blood and tears that have stained our soil. But we’re still here. We’re still here and whether or not you hear it or read of it, we do have a voice.
Juliane Okot Bitek is an Acholi woman from northern Uganda who lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. She is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Liu Scholar at the University of British Columbia. Juliane’s research interests include the narratives of formerly abducted women in post-conflict northern Uganda. Her latest writing endeavour, Stories from the Dry Season, is the culmination of her work with the stories of women who were abducted by the LRA. Juliane’s essays, poetry and nonfiction have been published widely in print and online.
Augandan MarverickMay 22, 2012I empathize with most of Juliane Okot Bitek sentiments in this article, but I repectively disagree that KONY2012 producers were out to silence anyone.