“KONY2012”: Bigger than “Out of Africa”, and probably better

More than a week ago I promised my daughter a post about KONY2012.  Seeing as how I changed her life by moving her to Kenya for the seventh grade four years ago I allowed that this was a reasonable request, and agreed to do my best (even though I was inclined to not to write on the subject otherwise).

In the meantime, I agreed to lead a Sunday School discussion about the video for this morning, so I had to work through how to address the complexity of issues in a very brief overview for a general audience of my contemporaries who are not “East Africa junkies” who would read this blog, but who came to the issue initially primarily as parents of children impacted by an unusual and interesting cultural phenomenon in the form of this video that “went viral” in an unprecedented way.

From a Sunday School perspective, we talked briefly after watching the video about our responsibilities to be aware of things going on with “our neighbors” in the world and finding effective ways to respond. We were struck by the notion that our children were being reached and moved, and in some cases perhaps manipulated in different ways with Facebook and YouTube, etc. as opposed to what we grew up with. We touched on the issues about lobbying for a specific military response to a unique situation involving several countries. And we certainly recognized and appreciated the talent applied to making a video that had us all thinking and talking about Uganda and the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Recognizing the video as aimed primarily at an American audience with ancillary worldwide distribution in our spontaneously globalized communication sphere may help to see this in a different way that I think might be constructive. It’s a viewpoint that I eventually stumbled into after reading a lot of Ugandan, aid-focused, “Africanist,” marketing, tech and media commentary–much of which is important and useful, but left me unsatisfied as well.

If we look at this as a Southern California American film about East Africa, and compare it to Out of AfricaThe Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland, maybe we can appreciate the genius of the use of the medium in a way that has captivated so many millions of people, a way that is a little more current, and aspires to accomplish something more.

Of the cultural events in the United States in my lifetime that have some real connection to East Africa, “Obama2008” is surely the biggest, but “KONY2012” has eclipsed the big one from back in my day, the 1985 Sydney Pollack film Out of Africa starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Romanticized nostalgia for a whitewashed version of European colonialism in Kenya with two of Hollywood’s biggest and most appealing stars had some real influence, and still does to this day. The image is good for American tourism to Kenya–so from a “chamber of commerce” viewpoint this has been in a way positive–there is money to be made from this nostalgia.   But it was probably a setback toward getting Americans to grant full agency to black Kenyans and indirectly contributed to the depersonalization that facilitated our support for the “one party state” of Moi, continuing right up through the problem of Kenya’s “Invisible Voters” in the 2007 election.

For Americans of a certain age,Out of Africa is right there along with Born Free and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in our images of East Africa.  Robert Redford alongside Ernest Hemingway.  By the mid-80s we had started to really settle on heroic images for the leadership of the civil rights movement in the United States–if Hollywood had produced a blockbuster about the Kenyan democracy movement instead of a European story set in colonial fields, some of us might have been inspired rather than just charmed and entertained.

In The Constant Gardener, a more fictionalized but topical LeCarre story, we have flawed but sensitive and aware white Europeans trying to fight the evil designs of their fellow outsiders in Kenya and the region. We even see Kibera and dance the dance and feel the vibe. But of course it is all doomed to failure.  None of that naive “new world” hope here, thank you.

In The Last King of Scotland, we move to Uganda, so in a sense we are getting warmer, and invent a white character to interact with the snippets of past history of African debauchery because that’s easier than imagining a Ugandan who could really tell us about all this, and in whom we will be as interested.

KONY2012 comes in at slightly under 30 minutes, so its quite a bit shorter than these full length feature films. But it’s more ambitious and packs a punch. It has been seen by millions and motivated thousands of those to actually read and learn something about Uganda and bordering countries today. It addresses a strange situation in which Congress passed legislation and the administration has sent U.S. troops to chase a foreign “warlord”. Most Americans were apparently completely unaware that this had even happened, and millions more now know. Sure, the video is going to strike Ugandans as patronizing (I live in Mississippi, so I know about being patronized, and how tiresome it can be, as well as the pain of an image that accentuates the worst and the past rather than the present and ignores the trajectory), but in the context of “Hollywood” film, KONY2012 can also been seen as representing some significant generational progress. We are only 18 years after apartheid and 27 years after Out of Africa. The filmmakers themselves may not be master strategists of conflict resolution and criminal justice, international relations and aid effectiveness–but there is surely here some authentic spark of passion that does recognize a common humanity with the victims of violence that when shared seems to be something more hopeful.  Something that this upcoming generation can chose to be inspired by and make use of.

And do check out the LRA Crisis Tracker alongside this academic article, “Culture, Cultivation and Colonialism in Out of Africa and Beyond.”