The self-appointed documenters of African exploitation received a measure of opprobrium this week, as CBS News points out in its report on the questionable viral video campaign of the non-profit Invisible Children.
Invisible Children has been criticized for spending more of their resources on advocacy and filmmaking rather than on-the-ground humanitarian work. And they’ve also been accused of grossly mis-representing the politics and context surrounding indicted Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony, who remains on the loose despite decades of his murderous assault on civilians, especially children.
“One consequence, whether it’s [Invisible Children] or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone,” Chris Blattman, professor of political science and economics at Yale University, told CBS. “At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures.”
Blattman, one of the most perceptive commentators on African affairs and on the contradictions of aid projects in the region, is highlighting a problem that I’ve longed complained about: the tendency to Americans and Europeans to hijack African problems for their own purposes. The case of Jospeh Kony seems to have attracted some of the worse examples of this general tendency, with its stark and often-inaccurate depictions of Kony, his Lords Resistance Army and the conditions of northern Uganda.
Many of the stories of the LRA are simply fabricated, and there is no discussion of the geopolitical rationale for Sudan’s support for Kony and the LRA — or why Museveni and the US tolerated his activities for so long. These documentaries are also profoundly ignorant of ethnic issues. The film-makers, invariably white and professed altruist, present a story that goes like this: black people woke up one day and started killing each other for no reason. the men also mistreated horribly their women and children, again for no reason.
When the US government kills wome and children in Afghanistan, as its forces surely have done, we are told that these actions are regretable mistakes; and the very white altruistic do-gooders who complain about Kony and African brutality say nothing.
In fact, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have very specific grievances against the Ugandan government and even the highest leaders of the Acholi, such as Norbert Mao, an elected member of the Ugandan government, view the LRA as an expression of Acholi grievance. To be sure, Mao disapproves of Kony and his methods, he deplores the mistreatment of children and he wishes the Acholi could only peacefully express their dissent.
But your documentary and the many others like it never speak to Maoi or understand the conflict in ethnic terms. These film-makers are part of industry that gets monetary rewards for re-packaging lies and half-truths for the sole purpose of presenting Africans as half-human, diminished victims of their own people.
My wife Chizo, in these situations, would ask, why are foreigners so eager to document our failures when they have so little interest in African successes. Some insight into this pathology can be found in my own lengthy examination of the persistent tropes, or meta-narratives, that explain how Westerners become committed to denigrating, diminishing and dismissing Africans — without even realizing they are doing.
In brief, in reviewing the various “meta-narratives,” or tropes, in storytelling by non-Africans about Africa, I first identify these tropes and then argue that they grip the minds of outsiders so fiercely as to prevent them from actually seeing Africa and its people in their terms (whatever that might be) and instead see Africans as a “prop,” or backdrop against which to play out their own issues. Problematic and perverse meta-narratives are, in my view, the challenging intellectual issue facing Western thinkers on Africa.
These tropes can and should be contested — and the flap over the actions of Invisible Children should promote more critical perspectives on how African conflicts are depicted and why.