Who’s Telling the Story?

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” So begins the Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 video that went viral yesterday. And yet, I would perhaps change this opening quote to say something like, “Nothing is more powerful than the stories by which we construct our identities,” because these stories determine who you believe you are and how you believe you can engage the world and with others. Powerful. Potentially dangerous. Always in some way failing in it’s accuracy and exclusive to someone else. Even with our best intentions.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I can’t believe I missed it. Mostly, I was consumed with all the media coverage around KONY 2012, the new campaign (BUT, not new issue) by Invisible Children. Luckily, I happen to think women, local or global should be celebrated everyday. So it’s still International Women’s day in my mind. In honor of that I want to introduce you to a beautiful, eloquent and thoughtful young Ugandan woman by the name of Rosabell Kagumire. Rosabell is a multimedia journalist covering peace and conflict issues in East Africa who recently offered a response from “the ground” about the Kony 2012 campaign.  I listen to Rosabell, and I immediately long for more strong voices of passionate women to speak out and be heard from the spaces and regions of which western media sources so easily construct narratives. Rosabell not only comments on her views of Kony, but also shares a deeply significant and all too often missed point about how we create narratives of “others.”

“How you tell the stories of Africans is much more important on what the story is actually.  Because if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on. And this video [KONY 2012] seems to say that the power lies in America and it does not lie with my government. It does not lie with local initiatives on the ground. That aspect is lacking and this is the problem. It is furthering that narrative about Africans, totally unable to help themselves and needing outside help all the time.” ~~Rosabell Kagumire

The country of Africa, oops, I mean “continent” is no stranger to half-truth constructions and mythological tellings of its life and people. In a similar way, the shaping of humanitarian aid narratives (for-profit or not) from the West, specifically America has a recognizable, albeit perhaps unintended, thread woven through an age-old history of “conquering Africa”, ‘saving Africa”, healing Africa”, “helping Africa,” and basically bringing “Light” by bible, food, shoes- glittery ones even, or sword when necessary, to the “Dark Continent.”

I think what people forget is that we construct stories in multiple ways, yes with words, but also through visuals, (photographs especially) sounds, how we market, promote, basically communicate our beliefs and ideas, and by whom we recognize or invite to be conversation partners. Each of our stories lends itself to creating or re-creating particular perspectives and views of other people and in sharing segments of our own narratives and our perceived role in the world. It can be difficult to recognize or remember that the culture and people of whom you are historically a part already embeds you in an ongoing narrative about what it means to engage the world and others. What we really forget is that there already exits a Master narrative (it’s Western-European by the way) constructed through histories of colonialism, economic, environmental, and physical violence, and racial classification. The “lesser narratives,” the stories, folktales, and oral traditions of non-western Europeans continually fight to be heard, recognized, and valued for meaning, truth and power in and by themselves, regardless of the overarching Master narrative. This is basically what I see playing out in Rosabell’s video.

We also forget the importance of actually being invited to tell another person/people’s story.  When we jump in with our own version of other people’s realities and how we think their stories should end, we are, like Rosabell, put it, suggesting the other person (s) is “voiceless and hopeless,” unable to tell their own stories and to give meaning to their own existence. We are also playing right into a personal narrative that suggests we have the knowledge, power and right to save others and to know what is best for others. This is foolish and patronizing in the least, dangerous at best.

I’m not vehemently condemning Invisible Children or their campaign. I am simply reminding us that we create and tell stories in multiple ways, and of the power of stories and narrative construction to shape our imagination and our actions.

  • http://www.hugeblue.wordpress.com Hannah

    Very thought provoking, thank you.

  • Shannon

    Great perspective, Enuma.

  • http://www.rouserantings.blogspot.com ciona

    I watched the first IC film in 2006 or 2007 and, while certainly being moved by the powerful story of Jacob and the other night-commuting children, was an immediate skeptic.

    This wasn’t the Africa I knew, I thought. The Africa I know is filled with strong women like Cheryl Pillay in South Africa who wasn’t waiting for the West to come rescue her neighborhood; she was active in her community whether we were coming to help her or not.

    I got to know more about Invisible Children over the years, however, becoming friends with many of the people who work/worked there. I opened my home to them as they gave up a semester or year of college to make no money and sleep on people’s floors as they learned more about Uganda, the LRA and shared the stories of children who were not voiceless but certainly needed a platform to be heard. I got into debates with them about a few of IC’s questionable and problematic tactics and campaigns (namely, this one: http://mplatas.blogspot.com/2009/03/i-heart-lra.html). I made and shared a film with them to tell the stories of strong leaders in different African countries: http://vimeo.com/6521425. I certainly don’t just jump on any IC bandwagon and think it’s the shiznit.

    In learning more about them and getting to know those who work with IC, however, I also learned that they are not just a bunch of naive young white boys trying to save the world out of their blind ignorance. They work closely with the Enough Project (www.enoughproject.org), Resolve (http://www.theresolve.org/) and, most importantly, Jolly Grace Okot Andruville–an intelligent and eloquent Ugandan woman who was one of the first children abducted by Kony’s army in the 80s. She is not only a staff person for IC but is the woman who sparked the IC movement in the first place. Jolly, like the woman Rosabell mentions in her video, has tirelessly gone to the front lines for the children of her country and for the children in other countries where Kony now wreaks his havoc. She was doing this work in her community, not waiting for the West to come in and save the day, leading a nonprofit organization of her own called H.E.A.L.S (http://vimeo.com/8637622). She has been right beside Jason Russell and the others with IC all along the way (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQABpjCalJk), asking the guys of IC to do what they do best: make films, tell the story. And, specifically, rally an American audience who cared more about their next trendy outfit before IC but who now are actively involved in the politics of America, some of whom now work for political advocacy groups that raise awareness around Kony, clean water, nuclear weaponry, Burma, the list goes on and on . . . They are young people who are making a difference in the world. And, as much of a critic as I’ve been, I think that IC has told this story and announced this particular campaign well. There are some things I’d change for certain, but I don’t think they are deserving of the intense critique they have received this week. This is ONE piece of a campaign that is very well planned and very much informed by very well educated people from Uganda, DRC, CAR, Europe, North America who have worked hard to stop Kony and other war criminals for years. It may be the most viral piece, but it is ONE piece. And it went viral because it speaks so well to its target audience.

    I don’t mean to be long-winded. I respect Rosabell and your thoughts on this issue and am so happy the entire world is having a conversation these days about Kony, humanitarian work and, most especially, responsibility in story-telling. I also don’t think that in order to announce this campaign that IC had to spend 27 minutes establishing credibility or explaining how they are not exploiting child soldiers and don’t consider themselves a voice for the voiceless but are simply one medium through which child soldiers have been able to share their stories. I think we have a responsibility, as well, to be moved by the video to learn more about the issue, the organization and how we might best choose to respond.


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