When I was in the 3rd or 4th grade, my father and I were watching a news special about a group of Westerners who had traveled to “Africa” to help the poverty stricken people there. Never mind that they never specified where in “Africa” they were traveling. I being, the sensitive child I was became moved to tears at the sight of the dirty and disheveled street urchins the cameras captured. These children were so poor and discarded that they didn’t even know enough to keep the flies from roaming freely across their faces. I begged my father for whatever a price of a cup of coffee was to mail to these children. My father is one of the most empathetic and compassionate human beings I’ve ever known so I was surprised that rather than rush to his change jar, he turned the TV off and told me to stop watching such nonsense.
He then told me the story of an event that happened when he was just a small boy in our village back in Nigeria. During our annual, New Yam Festival, a group of English photographers came to Ugep to “document the culture.” The New Yam Festival (or Leboku) is a celebration of harvest and culture reminiscent of Carnival in other parts of the world. From the moment the photographers arrived, it was evident that they had an agenda. Rather than taking photos of the parades and maidens dressed in their bangles or of the elaborate dances and musical events, the photographers were only interested in promoting the downtrodden, poverty stricken narrative. So much so that they would raise their cameras, clicking furiously and pointedly at children who were naked or dirty and ignore those dresses in their finest for the festival events. This is not to say that there was no poverty in Ugep at that time. It’s just that the English man were not interested in a comprehensive view of our culture, only in the ones that could be exploited. They only picked up their cameras to document what would suit them. It was that moment that I began to think more critically about the propaganda of charity work.
When I first heard of the Kony 2012 Movement, I was immediately skeptical. Not because of how quickly the message spread, in this social-media driven world, one properly placed celeb Tweet could make the most innocuous of events catch fire and fly around the world four times before noon. My problem is that the “White savior” complex from pop culture is now invading the realm of activism. The vagueness of “raising awareness” and “making a difference” will pull at heart strings but offer no substantive solutions or offer no tangible facts about complex situations. Collective awareness is a beautiful and can be a powerful thing and in cases like the recent neighborhood watch murder of Trey Martin, it is absolutely necessary. There just mere “spreading the world” can do wonders in assuring that justice is served. However, the meme of “Stop Kony” is far more complicated than the people behind Invisible Children will have you believe.
Are there problems? Of course. But there are problems everywhere and if you don’t take into account both the context in which these problems are presented and the gaze of those showing you the images, you can end up causing far more damage.
Please, do not get me wrong, I am not faulting those that are moved by these images. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling moved by what was presented by The Invisible Children. It speaks to the sincere and compassionate parts of our spirits. Of course you should be moved. Of course you should be up in arms. Of course you should want to do something.
Empathy and compassion should be celebrated, however, it would be remiss not to challenge the gaze that pointed you towards the images. There must be questions asked of the filmmakers and their intent. There must be a presentation of what is actually going on in Uganda and support for the established organizations who have been carrying the bulk of what Invisible Children has dissected and portioned off to feed their own interests.
During my lifetime, every few years, there is another problem somewhere and there would be another group of well meaning, well intentioned group of Westerners who decided to take it upon themselves to “do something”. Never mind that often, “something” is already being done long before Westerners catch wind and will continue long after the next cause celeb shows itself. Merely being well-intentioned is not enough when the intention is to reward guilt trips laid by those who tripped you.
Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-born/internationally-known poet, writer and mental health advocate. She is the founder of The Siwe Project, a non-profit organization for mental health awareness in