I landed at the Entebbe airport outside of Kampala, Uganda, in the spring of 2006, that familiar Third World aroma of burning trash hanging sweetly in the air. Minutes later, I was whisked away toward torrential traffic in a car driven by Ricky Anywar, a tall man of equal parts happiness, anger, and determination, originally from Northern Uganda, where he was abducted as a child by the Lord’s Resistance Army after watching his family murdered and home burned. Anywar managed to escape and turn his life around, 21st century Uganda-style, which meant that he founded one of the countless nonprofits trying to save his countrymen from the torment brought on by the LRA’s crazed leader, Joseph Kony.
I was there to learn about the long-simmering civil war between Kony’s “army” of ragtag, mostly enslaved rebels and the East African country’s government, a complicated mess with shameless winners — corrupt politicians, opportunistic soldiers, certain nonprofits — but a few hundred thousand losers: those Ugandans who’d been killed, raped, and forcibly enlisted, or pushed from their homes into refugee camps and turned into poster children for the world’s humanitarian plight. Anywar became my lens, but I was never certain how clearly his focus fell on the truth, or whether it was periodically smeared with something between convenient memories and outright lies. In fact, it was hard to believe much of what anyone said, for even as Anywar showed me the mango tree where he watched his parents slain, my confused hands scribbled in my notebook: “Is this even true?”
Such is the fog of war, a world that’s never black-and-white — even in situations with dastardly villains versus the apparently righteous, reality tends to be somewhere in between. So before even I set foot onto the region’s red soil, I’d been skeptical of the nonprofit Invisible Children, which produced a 2006 film that showed Californian yahoo-bros diving into dangerous situations that they were proudly shocked by while simultaneously painting the Northern Ugandan situation as easy to fix.
Six years later, there’s only more complexity to the LRA situation — their movements have embroiled the Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States has sent troops in support — but Invisible Children’s message remains much the same, as relayed in the half-hour film Kony 2012, which has snagged nearly 100 million viral views on the Internet since it was posted in early March. I cringed watching it, not just for the simplicity, but for its atrociously self-promotional nature, and so did others, causing a backlash that made the film’s star/organization co-founder go crazy a few days later.
But, as did the first film, Kony 2012 inspired millions of people — particularly high schoolers and younger — to watch, learn, and act, which is more important than getting the story straight. To respond to the backlash, however, Invisible Children did set the record straight last week: Kony 2012, Part II: Beyond Famous got gritty with the details while showing the impressive support from schoolkids to politicians to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which indicted Kony in 2005 and has him as number-one on their wanted list. Thanks in large part to the Invisible Children campaign, many agree that it’s likely Kony will be captured or killed this year; this month, the African countries involved have redoubled efforts to make that happen.
This all comes to a head on April 20, when Invisible Children’s “Cover the Night” campaign will see people all over the world plastering stickers and posters of “Kony 2012” in public places, including here in Santa Barbara. The “kits” available online at kony2012.com repeat earlier offenses — most ludicrous is putting the Kony legacy ahead of both Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler — but it’s still inspiring action in the most unlikely of places.
So go for Kony 2012. But when that dies down, direct your support to a Santa Barbara-based organization doing good work in the same region, such as the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa at cafwaafrica.org, or send some money to my friend Ricky Anywar’s Friends of Orphans Uganda by visiting frouganda.org.