IN early March 2012 the world witnessed something it hadn’t seen before in this brave Digital Age.
On March 5, an American children’s charity called Invisible Children released “Kony 2012” a 30-minute documentary about the grim handiwork of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The documentary’s aim was to promote the charity’s “Stop Kony” movement to get the ICC-indicted war criminal arrested by the end of 2012.
That didn’t happen. Until a few weeks ago Kony and his band were still roaming the forests and remote parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR), murdering, raping, looting, and burning.
However, few would have predicted what would happen next after the release of Kony 2012. It was viewed more than 100 million times in just under a week, making it the most viral video in history at that point.
The video site even crashed under the weight of the traffic.
Some credit it with the decision by US President Barack Obama later in the year to send about 100 Special Forces troops to help with the Kony hunt.
A furious people
Then Africa, and most people in the world who have connections with or are interested in the continent, turned on the documentary with a fury that no book or film on an African issue had provoked before.
Everything that was not bolted down in Africa was thrown at Invisible Children. You could hardly turn on a local or international TV station at that time without running into a programme discussing the merits of Kony 2012 - and mostly throwing brick bats at it. In northern Uganda, where Kony was active before he was forced out by the military nearly 10 years ago, viewing events of Kony 2012 were organised, and there, many photos and videos of survivors or relatives of the LRA’s victims were crying and raging at Invisible Children.
The pressure was so intense, just ten days after the film’s release, Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and the man who made the film, broke down so dramatically that he was arrested running naked down a San Diego street. Thankfully he has since got himself together.
The filmmakers were accused of many things; having a typical western “Messiah complex”, swooping in and stealing African pain, its story, and memories. Cashing in on tragedy, oversimplifying the LRA issue, lying, and patronising a continent of one billion people.
A month later, they had moved on
But, perhaps not surprisingly, exactly a month later on April 5, 2012, when Invisible Children released a follow-up video titled Kony 2012: Part II – Beyond Famous, it didn’t go viral. Many people in Africa didn’t notice it, and there was no one baying for Russell’s blood. Everyone – especially the critics of Kony 2012 - had moved on.
It is more than two years since, and there have been a lot of juicy African developments that the Keep-the-African-Story-African brigade got busy with: The great man Nelson Mandela decided to die, so there were scuffles over ownership of his story, made worse by the fact that in a big film about him, he and Winnie Mandela were not played by South African actors.
Yes, Obama also came visiting and we fought over his itinerary and America’s rivalry with China for African spoils – about which one was the better benefactor. That tough controversial little man, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi also died.
Then the Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria abducted the over 200 Chibok girls, and there was a fight over the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. As the #BringBackOurGirls campaign gathered international steam, an American woman was accused of trying to steal the credit for the hashtag.
In Egypt, the Arab Spring revolution finally failed, and the soldiers retook power. The heady days of South Sudan’s independence became short-lived, with the country going up in smoke in a deadly factional fight just before Christmas last year (how unChristian).
There were lots of other things in there; elections (clean and stolen ones), visits by Chinese chiefs, a few more deaths by African presidents, but the one that finally did it was Ebola in West Africa.
Yet in the anger that a cross section of Africans are expressing at how the media in the world is covering Ebola, and stereotyping the continent in the process, nothing equalled the rage against Kony 2012.
Why? Before we get there, we need to ask what has happened to Invisible Children? As its critics found new causes, it stayed with Kony. Today it is running camps for victims of the LRA in Central African Republic and DRC (READ: In the bushes of Congo and CAR, African armies fight a forgotten war against a deadly enemy).
So, to return to the question, why was there so much fury over the Kony 2012 documentary?
Partly, because 2012 was when the “It’s Africa’s Moment” and “Africa Rising” wave were fully taking hold, and there was a certain headiness felt across the continent about the Arab Spring uprisings that ousted two entrenched dictators in north Africa in 2011.
Many African intellectuals and Africanists elsewhere in the world who had kept faith with the continent felt it was time for them to cash in their chips. The attention that Kony 2012 received was a warning shot; that what many considered an amateurish interloper like Invisible Children could come in and steal the crown.
Secondly, most people seemed to recognise that things like ending poverty, famine were gargantuan tasks that Africans alone, wherever they were, couldn’t do with the resources available to them - it would simply take too long.
By contrast new digital equipment, the internet, and social media, had put the means to “tell the African story” in most people’s hands. The cost of entry was negligible. It is not like trying to find a cure for Ebola.
In that sense, then, Invisible Children was like the fox trying to snatch the fruit that had fallen at the foot of Africa.
This view has produced what I can best call “African story jealousy”. We are willing to be internationalist in many things, but have become very protective and nationalist over the “African story”. We don’t want anyone else telling it; unless they are telling it exactly the way we want it – which is impossible because we want very many different things.
African story is a tough job
Lately, though, there is a realisation that telling the African story too is a bigger job than tweeting, Facebooking, or blogging about it on American-owned Twitter, Facebook or WordPress.com respectively.
It is hard frustrating work that requires lots of study, money to get around and see realties on the ground first hand for oneself, and also finding a way to make it profitable so you can feed yourself, pay the rent, and fund the next trip to write about how the Burkinabe overthrew president Blaise Compaore. Having a black skin, or a name that is pronounced with a click sound doesn’t automatically buy you a ticket on Kenya Airways or Ethiopian.
The reality is that telling the African story well, is nearly as hard as ending poverty or getting all children in South Sudan vaccinated.
One result of this and other challenges is that there is a growing new escapist movement in Africa. Call it “cause hopping”; activists with blogs and social media tools have a fling with a cause today, and they are gone tomorrow. The continent is filling up with Africans (not just folks from the west anymore) who are “cause nomads” in search of the next crisis to rail about, but do nothing to solve.
Oh, by the way, since everyone told Invisible Children to shut up and leave the LRA story to us, no African has got out his or her money and made a more accurate documentary of Kony. Which is fine, presumably, as long as Invisible Children don’t have the temerity to do Kony Part 3. That could just bring out the knives again.