I grew up in Nashville, TN, right in the middle of the Bible Belt. When I was a sophomore in high school (circa 2005), my World History professor assigned mini-research projects about some atrocity or other. Most of us stuck to Europe, a region we extensively studied in class; however, one girl introduced us to Joseph Kony and the evils of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I had never heard of them before, but she passed out Invisible Children pamphlets explaining in detail the danger the army posed for Ugandan children.
Even at 15, I felt a certain tug at my heart that I hadn’t experienced before. I participated in every event Invisible Children had to offer. I walked in the “Global Night Commute,” a multi-mile walk intended to symbolize the nightly trek of the Ugandan children to the safety of hospital walls. I was impressed that these kids had to go miles just to sleep. With thousands of other excited kids, I slept on cardboard, wrote letters to my senator, and spread the story of Uganda. The experience was exhilarating; I had never been around so many people my age that cared about….well, anything.
After my junior year, I was so inspired by the work of Invisible Children that I begged my parents to let me go to Uganda. Although we weren’t allowed into Northern Uganda, the region most impacted by the LRA, I traveled with a small group of six girls to Kampala to distribute aid packages to orphanages. While I only met one kid that came in contact with the LRA during my trip (and that was in 2006), my experience launched me into a college career of International Development, African Studies, and Anthropology.
Now I’ve learned quite a bit. I’ve changed, Invisible Children has changed, Uganda has changed. What hasn’t changed is the drive of young people to be heard and to actively take part in something good. One thing that KONY 2012 has gotten right is that children possess a moral compass unmarred by greed, politics, etc. Coincidently, they are also the most vulnerable and easily manipulated audience. What is concerning about the Kony 2012 campaign is that it targets youth with a simplified message to be the conduits for a very adult policy that ultimately condones (or promotes) U.S. military intervention.
With a growing youth movement in support this policy, the United States has all the more reason to feel comfortable tightening its strategic relationship with the oil-rich Uganda. Already, 42 senators and 62 representatives have co-sponsored KONY 2012 resolutions. Significantly, the resolution calls for the US to strengthen foreign military forces’ capabilities to seek out and arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, despite the fact that Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict, has urged funding to go towards rehabilitation.
Militarism is already insidiously present in the United States’ education system, and KONY 2012 only contributes to the normalization of military interventionism as the solution to all ills. The picture Invisible children has painted is conveniently black and white: Kony is the bad guy, the military is the good guy. Americans have to help or Africa will fall to pieces.
According to IPS scholar Karen Dolan, “young people have the ability to understand complicated issues. Our challenge is to help them understand the pieces, not to hide them in deceptive over-simplification.” In a surprise visit to an AU panel on the KONY 2012 campaign, a Ugandan embassy representative stated that the first Kony 2012 video was incredibly misleading, and was relieved that the second video offered more factual information about the realities of Uganda and the whereabouts of the LRA; however, KONY 2012 part II, has only received about 2% of the internet traffic of its predecessor. It is worrisome that the truth may still be overshadowed by the hype of Invisible Children’s “Cover the Night” event, in which cities will be plastered with campaign paraphernalia and kids will make a final entreaty to their governments to intervene.
Tell all involved youth that they rock for caring about Africa. “Cover the Night” doesn’t have to be the end of youth activism. Let’s use this opportunity to harness the spirit of justice and re-educate our youth about the continent. Don’t let the pressure get you down! If you don’t march on April 20th in a red Invisible Children shirt, know that there are many other ways to stand in solidarity with African children. Or, if you must, join in the crowds on the 20th, but raise a sign that says something more constructive, like “Support Democracy in Uganda,” “Ugandan kids need care!,” Or, if you are feeling more radical, “Send Peace to Africa: Arms that Hug not Arms that Kill!” We, the youth of this nation, have just had our voices recognized by millions of us clicking and sharing a slick video. Now we must use our powerful voice for an agenda that won’t harm nations across the ocean.
Emily Norton is a graduating senior at American University. She is an intern with Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.