Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire recently responded to the grassroots effort of Invisible Children to bring Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army to justice (called “Kony 2012”). Who are Joseph Kony and the LRA? Joseph Kony is the leader of the LRA, which arose in northern Uganda several decades ago. Kony and the LRA have slaughtered thousands, kidnapped multitudes of African children, and turned boys into soldiers and girls into sex slaves in various parts of Africa. Kony has been wanted by the international criminal court since 2005 on charges that include crimes against humanity.
Ms. Kagumire indicated that initially she had a hard time seeing what the video Kony 2012 had to do with the Ugandan situation. She argued that Americans (and other Westerners) must allow Ugandans to tell their own story. She also argued that they should support local Ugandan initiatives on the ground, and that they should not approach all things Ugandan as if Americans are the powerful ones who will deliver powerless Ugandans from all evil. She also claimed that if we don’t stop reenacting this same multifaceted problem, we will have done nothing to keep another rebellion from starting once the most wanted criminal against humanity, Joseph Kony, is gone.
Americans and the West have a long history of meaning well, but not always performing so well. We often come in and set up shop, and then drop shop as soon as the going gets tough. It reminds me of the movie, Hotel Rwanda. The Western powers (the Belgians primarily in this story) set up shop, but on their own terms. Once matters involving those long colonized got out of hand, the Western masters abandoned their pupils and left for home. Africa was not their home. It was a colony, a mission field, but not home. What business did they have setting up shops and hotels and controlling all things Rwandan?
I am convinced that if we don’t allow the Ugandans to tell their own story (and influence our own), if we don’t support local initiatives first and foremost, and if we don’t move past our sense of entitlement to relate to Ugandans and most other Africans in paternalistic ways, we will not remain committed to them for the long haul. Instead, we will bring about “Hotel Rwanda” or “Hotel Uganda” over and over again. Nor will we be committed to stopping the same problem we call “Kony” from emerging again.
If you were to establish a hotel there in Uganda, what would be your single-most important line? Would it be “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” as in The Eagles’ song “Hotel California”? Would your line be, “You can check in anytime you like, and you can always leave”? This is certainly how it seemed for the European hotel management’s engagement of its customers in the movie, Hotel Rwanda. Or would your line be, “We can check in anytime you like, and we will never leave”? The latter line should be the line of governments, NGOs, and missional organizations and the church.
The themes that the Eagles’ allegorical tune situated in L.A. and Hotel Rwanda likely shared in common were greed, hedonism and the dark side of the American and global dream. Even though one can leave L. A., it is very difficult to leave behind what it represents in the Eagles’ tune. And even though the Westerners left Hotel Rwanda and the nightmare behind, they did not leave their colonialist ambitions that created this nightmare behind. They took the nightmare with them.
No doubt, the intentions of Invisible Children are good. Moreover, their efforts are meeting with some success. They should be applauded for their efforts to support the cause to liberate Africa from Kony and the LRA. Still, there are various problems with the movement that must be addressed. I have written a longer piece on the movement titled, “Kony 2012, 2013 and Beyond.”
Going beyond Kony 2012, it is always most beneficial to wait and receive an invitation before starting a venture in a region in conflict. Otherwise, we can be seen as intrusive. We must guard against paternalism and a Messiah complex. We must also be sure that we are developing the relational connections that will keep us there collaboratively (not oppressively) for the long haul.
As impactful as viral video campaigns like Kony 2012 can be, far more impactful are the efforts of local movements on the ground. It is our increasing responsibility as the missional church and other organizations to come alongside existing indigenous host culture ventures locally, regionally, nationally and globally and support them, once we have earned trust and have received the blessing to partner. The incarnate Word whom Christians worship went far beyond a viral web campaign. He put all his words in flesh and put all his skin in the game. He had no exit strategy. If the Rwandans or Ugandans went down, he went down with them. He did not simply rent a room in a hotel. He moved into the neighborhood, shared life with the people there, and called it his home. He will never leave. Nor should we.
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.