Kony 2012 event raises questions of privilege, awareness

Rachel Alexander

Illustration: Julie Peterson

On the evening of Friday, April 20, Whitman students will take part in Cover the Night, an international day of action which hopes to raise awareness about the crimes committed by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

The Whitman Kony 2012 campaign will include a screening of the film “Kony 2012,” made by the nonprofit group Invisible Children, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18. First-year cade beck is organizing the event, and said that the purpose of the Kony 2012 campaign is to educate people about the atrocities Joseph Kony has committed in Uganda and a number of other central African countries.

“The point of Kony 2012 is to make Kony a household name,” she said.

To accomplish this, beck is organizing a group to cover campus with posters about Kony on the evening of April 20. She hoped that making people aware of Kony’s actions will motivate them to demand action from the U.S. government and other international institutions. Ultimately, the goal of the campaign is to put pressure on governments to stop Kony from kidnapping children, murdering their families and using them as soldiers.

“The Kony 2012 campaign is just asking the government to do something, whether it’s military intervention or something else,” she said.

The international Kony 2012 campaign organized by Invisible Children has sparked controversy from people who see it as an oversimplification of a complex political problem. Critics have charged the group with misrepresenting the extent to which Kony is responsible for the problems in Central Africa, as well as perpetuating a “white savior industrial complex” which portrays Americans as compassionate actors able to help “save” Uganda from its own problems.

“The narrative that [the campaign] sets up about the African story is not a positive one,” said first-year Mcebo Maziya, an international student from South Africa who is the Educational Executive Director for the Black Student Union. He believes that the Kony campaign has oversimplified the extent to which one man is responsible for the conflict in Uganda and other neighboring countries.

Invisible Children has countered these accusations by saying that the campaign raises awareness of the larger Ugandan conflict, as well as Kony’s kidnapping and use of child soldiers as a systemic tactic of war. Still, Whitman students are divided on the extent to which Kony 2012 is a useful way to educate people about the problems facing Uganda.

“I don’t think Kony is a problem as much as the social and economic situation surrounding Kony,” Maziya said, adding that a history of colonialism and oppression is more to blame for Uganda’s problems than the actions of a single man.

Associate Professor of Politics Bruce Magnusson agreed that the campaign has tended to consolidate a quarter-century-long conflict into a focus on a single individual.

“The Kony 2012 phenomenon makes clear why it is so crucial for students and the population at large to be able to carefully and critically assess media sources, information and what passes for analysis. These have both the ability to spread faster than clear thought and the capacity either to make most of the world’s horrors invisible or to choose which horrors obtain temporary attention and which ones do not,” he said in an email.

Senior Nan Mukungu, who is a first-generation Ugandan-American, believes that awareness around the Kony issue is not enough to create meaningful change.

“I don’t know how that’s going to help anybody,” she said.

Mukungu thinks that students who are concerned about the issues raised by the Kony 2012 campaign should approach activism from a position of recognizing their own privilege.

“Remembering that people [in Uganda] have agency is crucial,” she said. “Otherwise, it turns into a civilizing mission, which is really imperialistic.”

Sophomore Rania Mussa, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Uganda, acknowledged that the conflict between the Ugandan government and Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army was complicated, but believed that Kony’s arrest would be an important step in resolving it.

“There are bigger issues, but at the same time, you have to start somewhere,” she said.

Mussa will be helping beck organize the campaign at Whitman.

beck acknowledged that the Kony 2012 campaign won’t captivate every student at Whitman, but said that engaging in some type of activism is important.

“Find an issue that you care about. If this isn’t it, that’s okay,” she said.

beck also encouraged students who are skeptical of the campaign to come to the Kony 2012 screening and participate in dialogue around the issues it raises.

“We want to discuss what’s going on and hear everybody’s opinions,” she said. “We urge you to come and learn.”

Editor’s note, 12 April 2012 at 23:09: cade beck does not capitalize her name.