Dinaw Mengestu

In 2006, I flew with a group of journalists and United Nations officials to a remote village in Garamba National Park in eastern Congo, just on other side of the South Sudan border, for a meeting with Joseph Kony and the leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The meeting was to be held in a designated staging ground – a neutral space, deep in the forest, created by the UN as part of yet another protracted peace agreement between Kony and the Ugandan government. 

When we arrived, dozens of heavily armed LRA soldiers emerged from the forest and took their places among the stacks of rotting food that had been delivered to the clearing as an enticement and sign of goodwill. The LRA soldiers, dressed in camouflage pants and European football jerseys, spoke to no one and refused any attempt to address them. They were haunting, ghost-like figures that would have seemed beyond human reach had I not already spoken with dozens of ex-soldiers, boys and girls, who were rebuilding their lives and communities in camps and villages across northern Uganda. The heavy arms gave the LRA power, but many were still children, and even those who weren’t, despite the atrocities they had committed, were only marginally less vulnerable.   

While we waited for Kony and the other leaders of the LRA to arrive, I debated with a few other journalists if whether the most moral action wouldn’t be to wait until the leaders arrived, and then leave abruptly so they could be bombed or hunted down. Kony could have been killed then – it’s impossible to imagine any armed engagement in which he isn’t – as would have many of the boys, women and children forced to travel with him. Once we acknowledged that, our seemingly simple debate became untenable; there were too many complications to consider. 

Of course no one was killed or arrested that day. Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command and one of the five men indicted by the ICC, arrived first, trailed by dozens of more soldiers, and then two hours later, Kony, with his own heavily armed team. Because of logistics and the long delay, I was able to stay only long enough to see the other leaders, who in their self-decorated military fatigues would have almost looked like children themselves were they not trailed by such a brutal, violent legacy. 

Kony was, of course, the main attraction. His arrival was instantly reported on the wires and appeared on the front of the BBC News website. Millions of people around the world read about him, but no one who was there that day, from the UN officials to the journalists, would have suggested that the surge in attention would somehow translate to his arrest and capture. He was famous already, and millions of dollars and many years had already been spent trying to stop him. A few days worth of news stories would serve as a necessary reminder of that fact, once again, but as one of the other journalists there noted, the most important people there were the reporters: “If we’re not here,” he said, “It’s like it never happened.” 

The necessity of information, of course, is one of the central tenets of journalism, and part of the drive behind Kony 2012, a film with the explicit aim of raising awareness and provoking action against Joseph Kony and the LRA. The substantial difference, however, between the news report and the activist video lies in the intent.  The hundreds, if not thousands, of stories written about Joseph Kony and the LRA over the past twenty years have tried to present a short and fleeting glimpse of the violence and havoc wrecked by the militia. At their best, they have also offered insight into the exploitation of ethnicity and identity in northern Uganda, and the role the Ugandan military has played both in arming, killing, and trying to bring peace to the region. They ask and demand nothing in return, other than the reader’s limited attention. 

Kony 2012 wants both. It wants to tell us about Joseph Kony and his atrocities, but much more than that, it wants to convince us that there is a solution – that we need not sit helpless on the sidelines while children in Africa suffer because there is something we can do, and that something is as easy as a click of a button. That solution, however, only works in the myopic reality of the film, a reality that deliberately eschews depth and complexity, because of course the real star of Kony 2012 isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us. 

Kony 2012 is the most successful example of the recent “activist” movement to have taken hold of celebrities and college students across America. This movement believes devoutly in fame and information, and in our unequivocal power to affect change as citizens of a privileged world. Our privilege is the both the source of power and the origin of our burden – a burden which, in fact, on closer scrutiny, isn’t really a burden at all, but an occasion to celebrate our power. Mac owners can help end the conflict in eastern Congo by petitioning Apple; helping to end the war in Darfur is as simple as adding a toolbar to your browser. The intricate politics of African nations and conflicts are reduced to a few simple boilerplate propositions whose real aim isn’t awareness, but the gratifying world-changing solution lying at the end of our thirty-minute journey into enlightenment. 

In the world of Kony 2012, Joseph Kony has evaded arrest for one dominant reason: Those of us living in the western world haven’t known about him, and because we haven’t known about him, no one has been able to stop him. The film is more than just an explanation of the problem; it’s the answer as well. It’s a beautiful equation that can only work so long as we believe that nothing in the world happens unless we know about it, and that once we do know about it, however poorly informed and ignorant we may be, every action we take is good, and more importantly, “makes a difference.” In the case of Kony 2012, this isn’t simply a matter of making a complicated narrative easier to understand, but rather it’s a distortion, or at worse, a self-serving omission of the extensive efforts made over the past decade by the UN, US, Ugandan and South Sudanese governments, and numerous religious and civil organizations across Uganda, to bring Kony to justice. 

The most recent failed peace negotiations, of which that meeting in Garamba was one phase, involved years of coordinated effort between Ugandan, South Sudanese and Congolese officials and was proceeded by a US-supported military strike against the LRA that killed eight Guatemalan special forces as they tried to capture Vince Otti. That mission, and other attempts before it, failed not because of a lack of US engagement, or because Joseph Kony isn’t as famous as George Clooney. They failed for the same reason that it took us two wars, billions of dollars, and more than a decade to kill Osama Bin Laden. The capture of a single man whose forces are spread out in mobile camps across a vast, undeveloped region that covers thousands of square miles and includes not only remote villages, but also at least a dozen other armed groups, isn’t something that can be easily clicked away. 

What makes Kony 2012 especially frustrating, however, is that the film traffics in a sentimental and infantilizing version of Africa that is so prevalent we don’t even notice it. The idea behind a name such as “Invisible Children” is on par with the sentiments of the first colonists who claimed to have discovered the New World and Africa: We didn’t know about it, therefore it didn’t exist. The children of Uganda were never invisible to their families and communities, who long before the first flood of NGO’s to the region, worked for years to protect them. To claim they were invisible because a group of college students traveling through Uganda happened to stumble upon a war they were too ignorant to have known of before going to the region is, to put it mildly, patronizing. By the time the organizers arrived in Uganda and created Invisible Children, northern villages such as Gulu were crowded with NGOs and aid workers and the largest humanitarian concern, by far, was the housing conditions of the more than one million people living in camps for the internally displaced. 

That same self-centered logic is the driving force behind the film’s solution: Make Kony famous in America, and that will solve the problem. The movie claims to strive for awareness even as it deliberately avoids offering anything remotely resembling a full portrait of Kony and the LRA (the same is true as well for the website, whose “History of the War” consists of a few paragraphs). In its defense, the filmmakers claim that with only thirty minutes, there isn’t the time to offer a more complete portrait, which could be true if so many of those thirty-minutes weren’t spent on Hallmark images of college students putting up banners and of Jason and his son. 

The absence of nuance and depth isn’t a question of screen time, but of effect. The more you know, the more you understand that the answer has nothing to do with fame, money, posters, bracelets, tweets, or even sending one hundred military advisors to aid in the military efforts to capture Kony. The more you know, the more you have to question the millions of dollars in military aid the US government has already given the Ugandan government, whose president, Yoweri Museveni, has all but abandoned any prospect of democracy or dissent. It would also help to know that the last peace talks, which failed in 2008, included an offer of amnesty to Kony, the same amnesty that has already been granted to dozens of other LRA leaders who, despite having raped, abducted and murdered, can be found drinking in the bars of Gulu.   

The most common defense of Kony 2012 is that it raises awareness. This is the new activist model – to raise awareness through the power of our celebrities. In the context of African politics, both awareness and the answers to the challenges of violence, governance and development are yours to grasp in the time it takes to watch a sitcom. The problems and the lives affected by these are simplified beyond recognition, and since the problems are simple, so must be the solutions. Of the millions of dollars raised by Invisible Children for their version of awareness, what has changed? The LRA was already a radically diminished force. Many of its leaders, including two out of the five indicted by the International Criminal Court, have been killed. No one denies that Kony should be brought to justice. Millions of Americans may not have known that before, but millions of Africans have, and thousands of people have been working valiantly for years to do just that. Kony 2012 self-indulgently promises all of this will change because now we know, and thus we have the power. If there is one thing Invisible Children is right about, it’s that ignorance is blinding. 

Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets.  We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now. 

I’ve spent my career writing, researching and traveling through Africa, and what I am always astounded by is how little I know. I couldn’t explain to my son, much less offer a solution to, any of the conflicts I’ve worked on, anymore than I could explain to him why so many people are poor or homeless in America, why our public schools are failing, or why we don’t have better healthcare. I can’t explain the world I have focused on daily for most of my life, and yet this film would have you think that in thirty minutes of child-talk, we can somehow understand, and then resolve, a conflict in a distant part of the world. 

The doctrine of simplicity is always at war with reality. Our best, most human instincts of compassion and generosity, if they are to be meaningful, can’t come from a marketing campaign as simple, as base, as an advertisement for a soft drink that promises you the world for a single sip. If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it. 

Dinaw Mengestu is on the Advisory Board for Warscapes. He was born in Addis Ababa in 1978. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University's MFA program in fiction, he is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the Vilcek Prize, and was named a "20 under 40" writer to watch by the New Yorker. His first novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bearswas published to worldwide acclaim and received a "5 under 35" award from the National Book Foundation, the Guardian First Book award, and the Los Angeles Times first novel award, and was named a New York Times Notable Book, among numerous other honors. Mengestu's second novel, How to Read the Air, was published in 2010, and was also named a New York Times Notable Book, as well as a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Granta, New York Times, and other publications.