What Jason Russell and I Have in Common

When I watched the last release of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, MOVE, I couldn’t help but sympathize with Jason Russell. See, I think he and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in a conservative Christian environment. We both have spent considerable portions of our lives in Africa and the US. We both love inspirational film (except he makes them and I only watch). But the one thing that I feel like really connects Jason and I is our deep sensitivity to injustice. I can see it all over his Kony 2012 films. Despite all the criticism he and his crew have gotten over the past few months, you cannot convince me that Jason Russell doesn’t genuinely care.

Honestly though, who wouldn’t? Joseph Kony has committed some horrifying atrocities and something does need to be done about it. In that respect, Jason has gotten it right: I believe Jason is a good person with good intentions. But so was Dr. David Livingstone.

From 1851-1873, Dr. David Livingstone crisscrossed East and Southern Africa, determined to eradicate from it the evils of slavery. He called upon his fellow Brits to perform their Christian duty and use their God-given international power for a good cause for once. He went on exploratory missions for African natural resources, reporting back to his countrymen, encouraging them to come settle in Africa and teach Africans things like farming with plows and industry. Together, they could save the poor Africans from their own “debased” culture. Which they did, but are we really free?

Perhaps in a way we are—last time I checked the UN was against the African slave trade; and maybe Kony will eventually stand on trial before the ICC. But I’d like to counter that even with all these things, in a fundamental way we aren’t free.

What disturbs me most about all these rallying calls by moralists in the West, to interfere with the affairs of another independent community in order to save them (other than the fact that there is always a hidden agenda, but that’s for another post), is that they completely undermine what I believe to be the most fundamental principle of freedom: self-determination. It’s this radical belief that in each person and community—regardless of their ethnicity, religion, and language—inherently dwells the moral and intellectual capabilities needed to create a just and functioning society.

So inasmuch as I understand Jason, I disagree with this plan. Using international clout to find and stop Kony won’t provide the answer to Africa’s problems. All it will ever be is yet again another undermining of African self-determination. Africa will be robbed again of the chance of building a functioning and just society in its own terms. We would stay like children, needing intervention and constant supervision. Then there would be opportunists, with less benevolent intentions than folks like Jason or Dr. Livingstone, who would take advantage of the situation. They would lie, cheat, bribe and force their way in to take only what they want and leave the rest. There would be gaps in the society and new “Konys” would fill them in. Then in 2036, there would be a new crisis and a new campaign from a new generation will work to end it. We Africans have seen it all before and we’re not convinced it will work this time around. And the way it looks so far, neither is the rest of the world.

But there’s one more thing I think Jason and I have in common. It’s our belief in the potential of the new generation. Even though they’ve often been dismissed as being distracted, narcissistic and lazy, I agree with Jason that in the American millennials’ ability to accomplish something substantial. But what about the new generation of Africans? What are they capable of? Uganda is part of a continent that is undergoing a significant digital revolution. The implications to functioning society are vast. Some have already started experimenting in harnessing these opportunities. Take for an example the Applab initiative by Grameen in partnership with MTN to provide financial and information services to the poorest in Uganda.

Should I ever have the privilege of meeting Jason, or should he ever chance upon this piece I’ve written, I want him to know three things.

  1. I think his heart is in the right place, but I don’t think his plan is. The Kony 2012 campaign may succeed, Kony may be arrested but the far-reaching implications of this action on the African continent would be devastating.
  2. Africa will solve its problems in its own way, sooner or later. If he really wants it to be sooner than later, he should look into ways of empowering the Africa people with skills and tools to make that possible.
  3. If he ever teaches a film-making class, I would join it in a heartbeat.

Dreams from OUR Fathers

It’s interesting. Sometimes somebody can say something to you in passing that you never forget. They’ll probably forget it because it wasn’t a statement they actually put together because of it particular potency. They were just expressing a tangent thought or fleeting sentiment with no grander intentions. But for you it’s like an insight into a huge mystery and you can’t forget it.

It’s especially interesting when I comes from a parent, because despite all their efforts to instill in you the values that they actually believe to be essential, it’s those inadvertent words that actually make the biggest impact. That’s what it was like when my dad turned, looked at me and said, “Don’t ever let anyone look down on you because you are an African.”

I don’t remember anything else from that conversation, but those words were pure poetry were to my ears. Partly because the statement was so different from the pacifist exhortations I had grown used to as hearing as a good Adventist.  However, apart from that, how could it not be? It was the rhetoric of revolution, like the scream for freedom by Mel Gibson character, William Wallace in Braveheart; or King Leonidas’ “This is Sparta!” in 300. It was defiance in the face of subjugation—a deliberate self-determination. It said, “I am African and that is all I’ve ever had to be.”

Yet that wasn’t the real reason why it stuck with me. It wasn’t the bold defiant statement that he was explicitly making. It was what he was implying—something that I was only beginning to understand. It was much quieter, more earnest voice about who he was and as a result who I was. African. A people whom history hasn’t been very kind to. At least not the history that we are constantly presented: the oppression, poverty, diseases, and massacres.

Now, I’m not saying that we don’t have bright spots in the African story. Of course we have triumphs and goddamnit, we are proud of them. Like the way we celebrate independence—have you heard our songs? Nkosii sikelel iafrika! And you should have been in Kenya when Obama won the presidency. Jay-Z is black and his May Bach is too, so we wear New York Yankee hats and rap his lyrics. We are pretty convinced that we do Western religion better than the West.  And you can’t even begin to tell us that the ancient Egyptians were not black. But these are just statements and this is what we are saying: “Don’t let anyone look down on you for being African.” We are really implying something else.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand the implications and I find them quite sobering. True, the implications are not very loud, but they are deeper. They aren’t celebratory, but they are earnest and they remind us that there is still a work to be done, that the revolution isn’t complete. When everything is said and done, it is these invisible, inaudible words that actually drive the real and lasting changes.

So as an African, understanding that the revolution isn’t complete is important, especially as an African in the 21st century. Because at this moment in history, I see a world that is undergoing a fundamental change. The power systems that have determined the global politic-economic direction, once thought to be indomitable are being unsettled. And the engine behind all of this is the digital revolution. I am anticipating a new world emerging, with new rules and new ethics and new leaders. I’m not alone in this either—some of the most eminent economists, political scientists, and technologists are also singing the same tune.

It’s with this in mind that I want to explore where Africa belongs in this brave new world. I want to see whether we can rewrite our history, and I’m going to bet a shiny penny that come out a stronger, more united, more just and more prosperous Africa. I can’t help but hope that our generation can finally complete the revolution that our forefathers began so many years ago: a deferred revolution of sorts.