Gulu’s Reactions to a Kony 2012 Screening in Acholi

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Last night I was able to go to the Kony 2012 screening that had been translated in Luo (Acholi) in Pece Stadium and it was definitely interesting and deserves to be shared. All day there were trucks driving around town making announcements, radio shows discussing the event, and people talking about it where ever I went. Interestingly, we had a photojournalist, in the office yesterday too. You know that picture of the Invisible Children founders holding guns with the SPLA in South Sudan? Yeah, she took that photo. She is not affiliated with Invisible Children at all, but is back in Gulu doing a follow up story on the real situation in Northern Uganda for WIRED magazine.

After work, people were already waiting for the event to start. When the time for the screening was drawing nearer, Pece Stadium was literally filling with people and the line outside was ridiculous. Everyone came: men, women, youth, children… and people traveled from far away to see the film. I was talking to a UPDF (Uganda People’s Defense Force) commander at Golden Gate Hotel before the event started and although he wasn’t going to go, he thought it would be a good event for the government so that even if people were not in Gulu or in the North during the insurgency, they would see what was happening before and be able to compare it to the peace that the government has brought today. He also thought it would make it easier for the government to get assistance from other countries because they would “know what was really happening”. Because of the reactions to the screening in Lira a few weeks ago, some people were worried that the crowd might become violent or rowdy.

Once we had finally made it into the stadium, we knew that this event was a big deal. Apparently, the screening was sponsored by NUMEC, the Nortehrn Uganda Media Club. The emcees were some announcers from Mega FM and they had gathered several local artists to perform before and after the film. Most performers chose to sing songs about ceasing fire, peace, or thanking Invisible Children for their work in the North. The event also included a pretty vulgar comedy performance that seemed to have the sole purpose of appeasing the crowd.

Finally, Jolly Okot, the country director of Invisible Children in Uganda, came to the stage to speak and introduce the film. The screen they chose to play the film on was much smaller than anyone had expected, so I’m not sure how most people there could even see what was going on. But when the film started, it was clear that it was not what people had expected.

In the beginning people were receptive and found Jason Russell’s son humorous. When it reached a point that mentioned Kony’s “expiration date” in 2012, the crowd cheered and was still very positive. That is until people began leaving within the first 10 minutes after a short montage of victims missing ears, lips, and noses was shown. As they walked past us, some were saying that “This is too painful. They shouldn’t have shown this.” But at this point, most people were sticking around to see the rest of the film. From all of the hype, debates, and criticisms that have flooded the radio waves and newspapers, people were expecting to get a chance to see Kony and his troops. They wanted to see the acts of violence, more recent footage of Kony, and maybe locations of the LRA now. It was only when images like that appeared that the crowd was silent. At all other points, people shook their heads saying this was a waste of their time.

Last night was the first time I had seen the film too, and even though I couldn’t understand the narration in Luo, I don’t think I needed to. To be honest my impression was that this is a film about America. Not about Uganda. The vast majority of the footage is of college kids and politicians in America talking about their moral imperative to “Stop Kony”. Then came the footage of Jason Russell’s family, and finally a small portion of the footage was from Invisible Children’s trips ten years ago. There was no “action” like people were expecting, unless you count a bunch of Americans jumping in the air and holding signs that they were “Changing the History of Humanity” by wearing bracelets.

The most striking thing to me about the whole event last night was its insignificance. It was literally laughable how small this film was compared to so many of the expectations people had of this worldwide phenomenon. The film has no effect whatsoever on the lives of residents in Gulu. As more people left, some women walked by us and said “Look! Even this muzungu is shocked that this is what the film is!” All of the footage of Americans was considered to be “commercials” from the real film that people thought they were going to see—the real film that had anything to do with their lives.

When Kony 2012 Part I ended, LC 5 Chairman Mapenduzi attempted to speak to the crowd, but with little avail. He tried to get everyone to clap for the work of Invisible Children, but people only laughed in between the messages for lost children and stolen shoes. When he announced that they would also be playing Kony 2012 Part II, all anyone wanted was for the musicians to come back on stage. At this point, I would say that one third of the crowd had left. And more began to stream out when Part II began to play. And while that film had more “relevant” footage, it was already too late for anyone to really pay attention to Jolly Okot’s pleads for the children to come home or to the bullet points in the “multifaceted approach” that would stop Kony.

We left immedately after the 2nd film, but I have heard that people started throwing stones on the stage and shouting at the musicians, so everyone started fighting and it turned to chaos with multiple gun shots and some rioting. The streets were apparently flooded with soldiers after that.

A million other people have already analyzed every second of this film and every dollar that Invisible Children has made or invested in their work. I like to believe that no matter how atrocious, harmful, or simply ignorant a person’s actions are, in their mind and for their goals, it makes sense and they are doing what they feel is “right”. My analysis is coming late, but my biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t do anything to actually educate the well-meaning youth it is targeting. It doesn’t ask anyone to go read a book or even do a Wikipedia search for Joseph Kony. The only options it gives to the youth of America are to donate, donate, donate (and sign a pledge to “Cover the Night”… cover it with what? Dollars? Bracelets?).

All in all, Gulu town’s reaction to the film was that it was simply a waste of their time. The most challenging part of the whole evening was trying to squeeze out of Pece Stadium with hundreds of other people trying to fit in the same small exit that we were. Gulu has not changed because of Kony 2012. People still went out after the film to celebrate Friday night. They still have to put food on the table, they still have to pay school fees for their kids, and they still have to continue to try and forget the atrocities that changed their lives. As I have said before, Kony is no longer the problem in Northern Uganda. New problems resulting from much more than a single rebel group have emerged in the years since peace returned: land conflicts, Nodding disease, unemployment, inflation, corruption, HIV/AIDS, overpopulation, alcoholism, domestic violence… The list goes on and on but that doesn’t mean that Uganda needs “our help” or that it needs “saving”. There are dozens of local NGOs that are engaged in truly innovative grassroots programs working to rebuild and to empower their communities to bounce back from whatever they may have experienced.

The most entertaining and fitting reaction that I overheard was from a man walking in the crowd back to the center of town: “That was a waste of my time. I should have just stayed home to reproduce with my wife”.

15 responses »

  1. I’m surprised this time fr the first time. Mainly because I wouldn’t show the same film to victims as I would to uninformed Westerners. What’s the point in showing a marketing film in Aficq that is designed to incite Americans to keep their government in the hunt for Kony?
    Someone is not thinking.

    • Indeed. And thank you for your comment. The disappointment in the cultural irrelevance of the film got people so frustrated that they threw stones at the musicians at the event (a failed attempt no doubt placed to blindly subdue the crowd). I think screening the film and expecting anything like a positive reaction discounts the intelligence and and the experience of the people of Gulu. Of course they knew the film was not at all intended for them. Yet, it showed images of friends and relatives that are very personal. To pretend that anything in the film might be relevant in present day Gulu or to anyone who was here during the insurgency is simply a joke.

  2. Thanks for the great description of the event and gave us a glimpse of local sentiments and what it is like to be at events like these in Uganda. Take care.

    • Mr. Allimadi,

      “Interesting blog”? I think the correct words you were looking for were “inflammatory” and “hyperbolic.”

      More a more balanced view of the same story please see Reuters – http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/11/net-us-usa-kony-wikileaks-idUSBRE83A1EJ20120411

      Your use of the word “spying” is outrageous. Invisible Children reported Mr. Komakech to the authorities when it became apparent that he had stockpiled over 600 weapons and was planning violence. Mr. Komakech was a beneficiary of IC’s before this discovery and IC did the right thing by reporting the dangerous activities of Mr. Komakech.

      There is a difference, Mr. Allimadi, between calling the police when you witness a break-in and being an FBI informant, if you catch my drift.

      Thank you for your time. I hope you will take a cue from Reuters on how to write an article with some journalistic integrity.

  3. The last part of the post is great (you should visit Invisible Children’s office to learn about the locally led development work they are doing). Since you could not understand the film (and had never seen it before) your post is uninformed information. The purpose of the films is to provoke the world to remember that Kony has left Uganda, but he is doing the exact thing he did in northern Uganda in Central Africa – DRC, CAR and South Sudan. Your perspective is one of many (and very limited to be as opinionated as you are). When I left the stadium I asked a young boy what he thought and he said “I feel bad, I don’t have any money” when he was asked “what do you need money for?” he responded by saying to give to Invisible Children to help stop Joseph Kony and help the communities in Central Africa who are experiencing the same thing northern Uganda did. Just like everyone else, you missed the point of the film. Kony is still committing atrocities. The same atrocities he committed in northern Uganda. And the communities in Central Africa are saying “stop Kony”. What are you planning to do about it? I urge you not to remain apathetic to the horrific atrocities being committed by the LRA in Central Africa. You can either criticize the film or view it as a catalyst to do something.

    • Daniel, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. The purpose of this article is to give people a perspective on the event that took place on Friday night. I’m glad you took the time to attend it as well. Although the film’s narration was translated into Luo, all of the comments by US politicians, students, etc. was still in English. And because this film has been picked apart minute by minute so many times, a translation of this very simplistic film wouldn’t change much of my understanding (and by now I have taken the hours to download the film in English and no, I am not surprised by any of the content). On that note, I AM surprised that the film was just NOW translated into Luo. Since the English version has been out for over a full month, anyone who doesn’t speak English and was able to get access to the film viewed it with even less understanding than I did (think about the violent reactions to the screening in Lira a few weeks ago).

      The screening in Gulu was completely out of context and was in many ways insensitive to the trauma people in Gulu are trying to heal from. Do you think it is okay that the film inspired this boy to simply donate money? Do you think someone of similar age in the United States (where the film was intended to be seen) was inspired to actually educate themselves after seeing the film? Or (more likely) were they inspired to simply “like” something on Facebook and buy a bracelet?

      And what about the atrocities that the Ugandan government has committed against people in Northern Uganda and just about everywhere they have gone in the search for Kony and the LRA, i.e. Central Africa. These are the result of the past military campaigns that Invisible Children has so strongly supported. Of course Kony should be captured and brought to justice. I hope I did not imply that I think Kony should continue to commit mass human rights abuses in Central Africa. And I don’t want to imply that I at all have the authority to suggest a solution to this very complex problem that stems from much more than a single man. But the solution cannot be presented in such simple terms as a military campaign by the US into a very oil rich region of the world, or in support of a government that has refused to give up power, has changed laws to maintain its grip, and has outlawed opposition groups from protesting.

      If “everyone else” missed the point of the film, then maybe that is an indicator that the point of the film was not presented in a proper manner, no matter how well intended it was. I think the vilification of Invisible Children has gotten a bit out of hand. I’m sure you’ve seen much more critical views than my own from people with much less experience and knowledge of the context of Northern Uganda. The tragedy is that for so many young people, this film is all they are going to see about Uganda. The very heart-wrenching story presented by IC is a single story in the complete narrative of Uganda. This “single story” is all too common and completely discredits the beautiful complexity of Ugandans and the amazing work being done every single day. Like most media coverage of Africa, it only shows war, poverty, and helpless Africans needing a donation.

      I think people should “do something” not by wearing a bracelet, not by donating to an organization that actually has a very small presence in the strong NGO community in Uganda, and not by fighting to stop a single man. If you want to fight something, fight the rampant poverty, poor education, gender-based violence, corruption, preventable diseases, and unemployment that are the constant reminders of over 20 years of war resulting from issues much more complex than Joseph Kony. Yes, Kony should be brought to justice, but will that improve life in Northern Uganda? Will that solve the conflicts and abuses in DRC, CAR, or South Sudan that allowed Kony to simply take advantage of the existing instability in the first place?

      Thank you for having a genuine interest in these issues, discussing them, and actually taking the time to read what I have to say.

    • I think that those of us who are educated in the situatuions of northern Uganda, having spent my time working their myself, and do understand what the “point” of the film really is. We also realize the missed oppertunity for the appropriate massage that could/should have been presented was unfortunatly lost in a single celled desire to bring Kony to Justice. The ICC already wants him, 4 countries are already looking for him. Bin Ladin took 10years and the full might of the US CIA to find him in a city next to a military base, and even when they were landing on the ground, they didn’t know it was him until he was literally in thier posession. I think many believe that finding one man in a jungle is a simple task… if it was it would be done already. So we need some reality and perspective that the films don’t present, however, one aspect was shown in this blog, that is what is really important to N. Ugandains. “whi

      You say that the movie is a catalyst to do something, or that by criticizing we are apathetic. I would suggest that we are not apathetic, but realize that other methodes are far more productive for the situation than just sending American soldiers after Kony. Think of the impact of Northern Uganda, South Sudan, CAR, DRC being in a position where crime and land conflict are no more. Or, that children are educated and understand what happened, and healing has brought a community together that was torn apart (did you know that some parents can’t trust or even claim their children because they had been force to serve the LRA). You know, all those things that Kony ripped apart that hinders development. Now, tell me that you know what this movie has catalized you to do?

  4. Your analysis coming “late to the table” only serves to better provide insight on a topic that became a trend that social media is already moving on from. The idea of understanding these issues and not letting the issues of the African continent (and world over) become “Trends” is important.

    Thanks for your thoughts and words.

  5. Kristinawlai,
    I love your writing style. Simple and easy to follow. The last comment has made my day. Lol..Milton Allimadi of BlackStar new has greatly dissected the issue over the weeks.

    Just like many of us hoped andrightly so, after a couple of weeks, Kony2012 wd be no more. Just like a flash in the Pan but for the victims and hard working floks on the ground, the reconstruction process is just beginning. I hope you’re enjoying your experience in Gulu.

  6. Thank you for the long response. I’m going to ask questions in response to your response in an effort to gain a wider perspective of the points you’ve raised from the lens of a development worker (I’m assuming this is what you do in northern Uganda since you place emphasis on NGOs and development work).

    1) Have you watched Kony 2012 Part II? What do you think about it? Does it still fit the ‘only shows war, poverty and helpless Africans needing donation?”

    2) Have you tried looking at the film from a different lens? In other words, what would you recommend as the best way to get the attention of the international community and be a catalyst for people around the world to care about an issue that is not the sole responsibility of ‘Africa’ because Uganda has signed the ‘Roman Statute’, which allowed the ICC to indite Joseph Kony?

    3) What do you mean by strong NGO community in Uganda? What do you know about Invisible Children’s development work in northern Uganda? Did you know that the advocacy work of the organization increased funding for development in northern Uganda by 30 million USD?

    4) Everyone else was referring to “everyone else who missed the point” not everyone else as in everyone who watched the film. Just like my statement, you misinterpreted the film and the fact that millions of people who were unaware of the LRA and their crimes against humanity now know. Do you think it’s possible that the “strong” NGO community in (northern) Uganda will receive more funding to do their development work because more people know what took place here from 1986 to 2006 because of the films?

    5) Why haven’t you made a documentary about the crimes committed by the government of Uganda? You seem to be “well-informed” about the crimes they have committed.

    6) What solution do you have for brining Kony to justice? Is justice for Kony just about northern Uganda (as you’ve implied in your response)? Do you realize that you’ve oversimplified Invisible Children and what they are doing in northern Uganda, DRC and CAR? What efforts do they have on the ground to improve peoples lives? While also trying to support the ongoing efforts to stop Kony who is still committing the worst crimes against humanity.

    7) Did you ask anyone why the film was showed in Gulu? According to a few community members I talked to they actually asked during radio talk shows (after the film was released in the US and they heard how much attention it received) to see it for themselves. It seems Invisible Children was fulfilling the request of community members in Gulu where they began as an NGO.

    8) Did you notice that the event was planned by the local government? Who is led by an opposition leader of the NRM?

    Just as you criticize Invisible Children for creating a “single story” you have also done the very same thing in your blog post (it’s a single story). My encouragement is to remain focused on improving the lives of people in northern Uganda (if this is your interest and the role you want to play in the need for peace) and spend less time criticizing NGOs that don’t do things the way you think they should be done. Everyone has a role to play, we should stop criticizing the roles of others just because we think we know better.

  7. kristinawlai, thanks alot for putting the PECE Stadium viewers’ view into perspective. Your account is very accurate of what transpired on that day. There was even a talk of sessesion from Uganda.

    Otherwise, I can’t believe that Syria now has earned a UN Ceasefire observer committee while someone is advocating to Kill the very children they failed to protect during the LRA-NRA/UPDF insurgency by closing the doors to peaceful resolution. The silence of “enemy” Guns, Gulu is experiencing, was a direct outcome of the JUBA Peace talks! Is Kony 2012 seeking a cease-fire and resumption of Juba Talks?

    I wish you all had camped iin Gulu by 1996, the peak of the BULLET TALK.

    If then, the insurgency was not serving some hidden interests, until Kony distabilized the mineral rich CONGO, why is it now that the Northern Uganda Children’s suffering is of any interest to “somebody”? Throughout the war, Northern Uganda was never declared a disaster ZONE, wasn’t there need to? Until the ICC – Rome Statute establishment, was KONY unknown?

    Remember, During a November 2003 field visit to Uganda, United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland stated, “I cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda, that is getting such little international attention. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3256929.stm)

    Much as KONY 2012 put Northern Uganda into perspective, the truth is, someone is not saying the truth behind the Kony 2012 and Anti-Kony Legislation in the US.

    Who owns the KONY 2012 campaign and who should for its sustainability. With that in mind, so was the documentary produced!

  8. Hello, I really appreciate your thoughtful piece and commend you for seeking to understand the conflict and the film from the perspectives of the people who experienced it. I just watched a woman’s response to the Friday’s showing – she’d been maimed by the LRA (lips, ear cut) – her conclusion was that the whole thing had “become a business”. Her response is in Luo, after subtitling will eventually post a link here.

    I spoke with an Invisible Children publicist on Saturday and her account was very different from yours and from others who attended the screening. She said the screening went well, and it was simply overcrowded; she wouldn’t confirm the teargas or gunfire, but she didn’t outrightly deny it either. It’s quite interesting that none of the local papers decided to publish what happened Friday night.

    You’re helping to tell some of the story that would otherwise not be shared. Please email me, I’d like to ask you about writing more pieces.

    Thanks again for having the courage to witness.

    Enjoy the fresh food and water in Gulu! There’s a remarkable range of beauty and tragedy all in one place.

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