In 2008 I found myself stood in a sewer trench in the centre of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, trying to help a man named Karem clear it with a spade. If he didn’t do this then when the rains came the sewers would flood the adjacent homes, which were little more than permanent slums. Karem, who was in his mid-twenties, turned to me and said: “My country, the DRC, it’s fucked”. Ankle-deep in sewage, I found it hard to disagree.
I’m telling you this not to perpetuate the idea that central Africa is a hopeless place, which it isn’t, but by way of explaining that I have some insight into what it’s like to be a white man in a country that I don’t understand wanting to help in any way I can. Maybe this is why, despite extensive flaws, I have some sympathy with the filmmaker Jason Russell and Invisible Children’s campaign to arrest Joseph Kony, the fugitive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Kony 2012 is about a promise. It’s a promise that Jason Russell made to Jacob, a former child soldier, when he met him in Uganda in 2003. Jason promised Jacob that he would stop at nothing to have Joseph Kony arrested and last week he managed to get the whole world talking about Kony and his army of children. This is no mean feat and I think it’s wholly admirable that Jason Russell is keeping his promise to his friend. However, in doing so he is using and perpetuating stereotypes that obscure the reality of life in central Africa.
The Kony 2012 campaign is a brilliant demonstration of the power of a simple narrative over a complicated one. The message, as is made explicitly clear in the film, has been simplified to the level that a five-year-old child, in this case Jason Russell’s son, can understand it. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, the world is more complicated than that.
First of all, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda, where Invisible Children have successfully lobbied to send American advisory troops to hunt for him. In the last half decade he has moved through the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and is now most likely in the Central African Republic. In the film, Russell repeatedly refers to Uganda as a warzone, doing a disservice to the country’s partial recovery in the years since Kony was forced to flee. In reality, children in Uganda are now at a far greater risk from nodding disease, an incurable and debilitating neurological condition, than they are from Joseph Kony.
Arresting Kony won’t stop militias from recruiting child soldiers and it won’t bring an end to nodding disease, chronic lack of sanitation or any of the many other awful things that can happen to you if you if you have the misfortune to be a child born into poverty in central Africa. Invisible Children, by their very design, are not built to tackle these problems. They’ve been repeatedly criticised for the lack of transparency over their accounts and the small percentage of their funds which go to development work on the ground, and by their own admission they are a campaigning organisation first with everything else an afterthought. All they really care about is that promise. That’s why while their campaign has been startlingly well executed, the very last thing anyone should do is give them more money. They don’t need it. Their stated aim, to raise awareness about the actions of Joseph Kony, has already been achieved.
The fact that reality is more complex than the Kony 2012 campaign would like it to be shouldn’t mean that people have to be confused or bored into apathy. There are things that can be done to help children in Central Africa, but these things will be slower and less glamorous than hunting down a single “bad guy”.
I met another young man in the Democratic Republic of Congo named Freddie Mbulayi Kabamba. He was part of a small organisation named RECIC who were seeking to establish local political accountability, and who had been supported for many years by the international development organisation Christian Aid. When I asked him whether he had any hope for the future of his region, he said: “We have hope, but not for now. In a long time. Hope is permitted, but we must have good leaders.”
That’s what people want and need. Not quick fixes and American troops, but their own accountable political structure. Neither Uganda or the misleadingly-named Democratic Republic of Congo are functioning democracies. I hope Joseph Kony is arrested this year, with or without the help of the American advisory troops, but that will not be the end of the story.
Originally published by British GQ.