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What Kony 2012 has to do with my book: this week’s round up

Sunday, March 11, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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If you are on Facebook (or Twitter) then you almost certainly have seen a link or reference this week to the new Invisible Children video, which is part of their campaign to ‘Stop Kony’ – referring to Jospeph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

If you missed the video (Really? Wow. You somehow avoided the most watched/shared video on the interwebs and yet you are reading my blog? I’m deeply honoured) you may have also missed the fact that there was a strong, widespread critical response to the video.

If you want to get a ‘real-time’ snap shot of the responses to the Kony 2012 video, this Guardian article is a great place to start.

Personally, I was especially interested in the response from Rosabell Kagumire, a Ugandan multimedia journalist working on peace and conflict issues in the Eastern Africa region. She recorded a video of her response to the Kony video, in which she talked about the danger of portraying people with one single story.

“Basically my major problem with [the Invisible Children] video is that it simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda, and makes out a [misconception] that is often heard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict.”

In a follow-up post, she talked to Victor Ochen who has lived in this war and now is a director of African Youth Initiative Network, which is working in northern Uganda to rehabilitate the community.

“Invisible Children are focusing more on an American solution to an African conflict that the holistic approach which should include regional governments and people who are very key to make this a success.”

Teddy Ruge made similar points in an article entitled ‘Respect My Agency’ and in response to questions from The Guardian, said:

“What I’d really like is for organisations like this to have a little bit more respect for individuals like ourselves you have the capability to speak for ourselves. By putting themselves as the heroes of our situation it debilitates our own ability to progress and develop our own capacity.”

Right about this point, friends of mine start to ask me whether we (by which I assume they mean the international development slash human rights community, as opposed to Ugandan journalists and commentators) couldn’t all just lay off the detailed critique of Invisible Children‘s campaign and acknowledge it’s extraordinary effectiveness.

Which is a fair point.

This is one heck of a powerful viral video campaign and it has got people watching, sharing, clicking, reading and talking about the LRA, about child soldiers and even about the ‘white man’s burden’. I think that is a good thing, and I have enormous respect for the story-telling (and story-amplifying) skills demonstrated by Invisible Children through this campaign. At the same time, I ask myself how far I would be personally willing to go in sacrificing accuracy for compelling simplicity in the process of telling stories.

In the words of one of the video’s creators, Jedidiah Jenkins speaking to GOOD,

“What we did was paint moral clarity and provide direct action steps.”

It’s worth reading Invisible Children‘s response to the criticisms of their video in full, and it’s worth noting that Jacob Acaye, the former child soldier featured in the Kony 2012 video has defended the video, saying:

“Until now, the war that was going on has been a silent war. People did not really know about it. Now what was happening in Gulu is still going on elsewhere in the Central African Republic and in Congo. What about the people who are suffering over there? They are going through what we went through.”

I’ve never been a fan of snark for the sake of snark, and I worry that rampant and often misinformed criticism of charities is becoming a convenient excuse not to contribute to any of them. This is especially the case where charities are attacked simply for the ratio of their funding spent on overheads, which was one of the criticisms leveled at Invisible Children this week.

If you want to understand more about the true implications of non-profit overheads, I highly recommend this paper by Sandra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough on ‘Why non-profit overheads don’t mean what you think they mean‘. In the case of Invisible Children, if their main focus is on awareness-raising and advocacy in the West, it makes sense that less than 40% of their funds would spent on the delivery of programs in Africa.

None of that, however, means we shouldn’t take this opportunity to talk about what it means that the most effective way to get us (and by ‘us’ here I mean all 60 million of us who have watched the video) to pay attention to a complex conflict is:

  1. a story simplified to the point that a 4 year old can understand it,
  2. the reduction of a morally complex conflict in order to ‘paint moral clarity’, and
  3. a narrative which places a white Westerner at it’s centre, in the role of rescuer and hero.

When The Guardian spoke to comedy writer Jane Bussman, who has been traveling to Uganda since 2005 she said:

“People need to realize it’s really bloody difficult to get the media to give a damn about stories with black people in the middle. …The fact that [Invisible Children] managed to make it an issue took some real brains.”

Which is the beginning of the answer to the question: what does Kony 2012 have to do with my book, Zen Under Fire?

Because when I wrote the book I knew that readers in New Zealand (and eventually, hopefully) the US would be more likely to read it if it was the story of a white Western woman in Afghanistan. I also had reasons to tell my own story – I wanted to debunk the myth of the heroic humanitarian worker and tell an honest story of the messy, confusing side of this work. But I was faced with this dilemma: How can I make the book accessible enough for readers who have no prior expert knowledge of or interest in Afghanistan without a) painting myself as some kind of white heroine ‘saving’ victimised Afghans, and/or b) over-simplifying the historical, political, cultural and moral complexities of Afghanistan for the sake of a ripping yarn.

I chose my point on the ‘complex/accurate vs simple/compelling’ spectrum. Zen Under Fire will, almost certainly, be criticised by some readers for doing the same things I question in the Kony video: placing a white Westerner at the heart of the narrative and over-simplifying a complex situation. But it’s also highly unlikely to find 60 million readers because I tried to express the moral ambiguity of my experience in Afghanistan, and to be honest about just how little good I felt I was able to do there.

In fact, one of the key lessons I learned in Afghanistan was:

“That people in Afghanistan don’t actually expect me to be able to solve their problems.”

It seems glaringly obvious when I write it now, but it took many months for me to understand that all people expected of me when they shared their stories of incredible suffering was that I listen, that I was willing to stay with them, in heart as well as in body, as they told me what they had experienced. I had to learn to quell my impulse to fix, which I came to understand was a way  for me to avoid the pain of being fully present with their pain, and simply bear witness.

So amongst all the response I read this week to the Kony 2012 video, the one that really resonated for me (and finally convinced me to write about the whole phenomenon) was this post at How Matters, where Jennifer says:

“Aid workers, do-gooders, that goes for us too. We have an immense responsibility to handle these situations with care because our presence as outsiders can and often does provide opportunities for people to tell their stories, often of suffering. It takes effort to cultivate and hone our ability to carry this burdensome, sacred role and work hard not to project or protect our feelings over another’s. But in my experience, simply “being there” can help people reconnect to their hope when it seems lost.”

Which is one of the core lessons of Zen Under Fire.

Another core lesson I learned in Afghanistan is that if we are to be able to really ‘be there’ when people choose to tell their stories of suffering, we need to cultivate self-care practices. This week I was sent two links on this specific topic, the first was an interview with Jonathan Shay who was talking about the need for psychological self care for journalists who are exposed to trauma stories.

“Anybody who has a constant diet of exposure to severely traumatized people will become injured themselves if they do not have a community context within which they can metabolize this. If you hear trauma narratives, for instance, from prostituted children, from targets of incest, from grandparents of murdered grandchildren, this makes you a witness to atrocity — just simply hearing this narrative from this trauma survivor.”

The other link was a book designed to help medical professionals who are exposed to secondary or vicarious trauma and stress formulate a personally-designed self-care protocol for themselves. I haven’t read the book yet but I was intrigued to see that it includes:

“a section on strengthening one’s inner life through the use of three core spiritual wisdom approaches drawn from a world religion perspective.”

Which is, of course a third of the core lessons I learned in Zen Under Fire, and the source of the book’s name.

If that sounds like something you’d like to read more about, this week you can win a free copy of Zen Under Fire in this competition being run by my publisher Penguin NZ.


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14 Responses to "What Kony 2012 has to do with my book: this week’s round up"

  1. Christianne says:

    This is oh, so very helpful, Marianne. Thank you.

    I’ve thought of you a lot in the unfolding of the craziness of this week with the Kony video. I kept wondering what you would say about it. I remember reading your response to the Haiti earthquake, I believe it was, in which you shared how important it is to do the right things rather than do the wrong things with good intentions.

    I so appreciate hearing how this week’s events relate to your book. Makes me even more keen to read it.

    Thank you.

  2. Katherine says:

    “I had to learn to quell my impulse to fix, which I came to understand was a way for me to avoid the pain of being fully present with their pain, and simply bear witness.”

    this resonates immensely – to look at our need to fix and flip it on its head and see it as a way to avoid connecting – witnessing. wow! this turned a light bulb on for me. not an easy thing to do but a wonderful thing to work towards.

    thanks for this!

  3. Kimberley McGill says:

    Thank you for this post. So much.

  4. John Curtis says:

    I feel compelled to write as I’m one of the people you refer to indirectly with incredulity who has not seen the video. Yes, we walk amongst you! (And still read your blog).

    It was a subconscious but intentional decision not to watch it, as I had plenty of opportunity to. It’s interesting (to me at least) that I should be fascinated by your experiences and your book but not by a video that achieves super-stardom of the kind associated with Justin Bieber. But I think the answer is right in that observation, that looking through the eyes of someone you know is more powerful than mass media can ever be.

  5. I’ve nominated your blog for a Versatile Blogger Award. I hope you have fun with it.

  6. Roxanne says:

    As you know, Zen Under Fire is sitting with me in Jerusalem and I’m so excited to dig into it and read your story. I liked Jennifer’s post at How Matters as well and, like you, I am tired of snark for the sake of snark. I love how you have linked this issue to vicarious trauma, trauma narratives and the challenges of storytelling.

  7. Thanks Marianne!

    You present each side of the debate well. I do appreciate that. I wish I could get over my emotions and do so as well.

    But my “snark” must not be just “for the sake of snark” as it is hard to let go. There are true convictions under a lot of it from both sides, eh? Mostly, I hope for what is best for Ugandans, and I’m not convinced this campaign truly is. There is some selfish undertone to it that makes me dis-trust the film-makers, and angry that they will benefit from using the story in northern Uganda in a deceitful way. I know Ugandans will also benefit in the short-term in a localized place, but what of the future of Uganda as a country? Does it need war-mongers? It needs strong young leaders to emerge and unify and regulate the economy and the opportunities coming out so that the country grows together. And I think, Museveni has to get ousted somehow for that… This video never even mentions him or his role, and in that way gives him more power…

    Blah, anyways, I look forward to getting my hands on your book some day – can you get it on Kindle??


    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Bethany, I can’t imagine you being snarky at all and would guess that your strong emotions have nothing to do with snark and everything to do with the fact that: a) you know more than most of us about what is actually happening in Uganda, and b) you care deeply about people there. So please, don’t apologize for those feelings. I’m certainly grateful that you have them and that you’ve shared some of your insight here.

      No Kindle for the book yet, waiting on a US publishing deal for that…


  8. Weh Yeoh says:


    This is an extremely thoughtful post – thanks for sharing it. It does however, raise a lot more questions for me than answers. Not having read your book (yet!) I can’t comment on how you balanced out your own perspective with that of local people.

    With IC though, one of the main thrusts of this post seems to be that by making their video accessible (ie simplifying a complex situation and having a white hero at the centre of the story), IC were successful at getting 60 million people to watch it. If their main goal was to get people to watch their video and make Kony (in)famous, then this is truly an applaudable strategy. However, if their actual goal was to positively impact the lives of people living in Uganda, create lasting change, even help the child soldiers themselves that Kony enlisted, then they’ve possibly (as many people have noted) done more of a disservice than a service.

    The second point is related to that over-simplification and dumbing down of the topic itself. Many people in development have seen it as a missed opportunity to talk about something more complex and meaningful. But, if indeed they had made a video about something in this manner – would they have had the success they did? I’m not so sure.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Thanks Weh Yeoh, I think I was left with more questions than answers myself, so it’s not surprising you got that sense from my post. I’m still ruminating on the questions myself. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  9. Thanks for linking to my post on – I am glad that it resonated with people. @InnovateAfrica & I hosted a live chat today to reflect more the issues that came up from our posts on #StopKony. Read more at:

  10. Ramesh says:

    What an insightful and eloquent post! Thank you, Marianne.

    When you write that your book would be more marketable if it took the viewpoint of a ‘white Western woman in Afghanistan,’ I presume the ‘white Western’ is in effect a proxy for a reasonably secular and liberal viewpoint, or what are colloquially termed ‘Western values.’ [ With an ever-so-tiny amount of irony on my part :-)] This may sound nitpicking, but watching for instance, the Republican side of the current US presidential race with its politicisation of birth control, makes us realise that this default presumption of a Western-leaning liberal narrator appeals to the general market of literary readers, yet these sentiments may not be widely shared by even the ‘Western’ public.

    On another note, your post highlights the tension in the internet age that we have unparalleled access to basic information, yet this ease has been bought, it seems, without a concomitant increase in the patience of the internet surfer to concentrate and digest complex positions. Authors are counselled, ad nauseam, not to risk boring or confusing one’s readership, as if the consumers are invariably afflicted with short or medium-term memory loss. Yet I’m sure all the readers of your blog are aware how much damage our sound-bite-obsessed culture has wrought on all complex issues, from climate change to international development.

  11. Hi MArianne,
    As usual, you have a crystal clear eye and a keen sense of observation. I love the way you articulate complex issues and agree with every word here. As someone who lived in Uganda for nearly four years and has been going back to the country every two months for the last two years I have watched the Kony phenomenon with mixed emotions and jumbled opinions.
    Thank you for being such a clear and Zen voice!

  12. […] controversy about Greg Mortenson and his book Three Cups of Tea, and then again, in relation to the Kony 2012 video. This week, via Thanks to Jennifer at How Matters, I read this article by Ethan Zuckerman on Mike […]

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