Commercializing Children's Suffering Is Macabre

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[Global: Justice Or Commerce?]

This Saturday, April 25th people from 100 cities all over North America will "abduct themselves" as part of an awareness campaign and fundraiser for the children of Northern Uganda.

Invisible Children, the award-winning organization behind this stunt has asked that people download a rescue packet and follow the instructions.

Invisible Children have long recognized the fundraising fatigue that is slowly sapping the strength of a public that is increasingly being bombarded by more and more emotional appeals to their pockets.

Founded in 2005, Invisible Children has raised plenty of money through their unusual tactics. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole, the young men behind Invisible Children have inspired thousands of young people to sleep on the streets as they did on the 2006 "Global Night Commute" that reportedly attracted well over 80,000 people all over the United States according to the press releases on their website.

In 2007, these activists "displaced themselves" along with 68,000 other people in San Diego. This year, Invisible Children has organized the 100 cities campaign.

There is little doubt that the Invisible Children have done much good for the children of Northern Uganda. Their efforts, like the Canadian founded GuluWalk has raised awareness of the appalling situation in the northern part of Uganda.

Yet, things are never as simple as they look.

For the most part, there is another invisible crowd of people, who are an integral part of the Acholi story that is largely unvoiced and disconnected from these well-meaning organizations.

I joined the facebook Invisible Children for the Vancouver chapter and asked if there has been any contact with the Acholi community here. I’m waiting for a response. During last year’s Guluwalk, I was the single Acholi participant in the small group of walkers who went through Stanly Park in an effort to keep the awareness level up.

The importance of having the input of the Acholi in the Diaspora is that they are as well-connected and closely related to the children that are abducted. In my particular case, some of the abducted children are related to me through bloodline and through kin.

It hurts immensely to watch commercialism take over in a bid to garner the interests and involvement of young people in the campaigns. The British Red Cross has joined in the fray by producing a game that allows players to become 16-year-old Joseph who "has one goal – to find out from the Red Cross if his mother is dead or alive."

"Click here to play," the website invites. To play.

Reducing the horrific experiences of hundreds of thousands of young Ugandans down to a game is unconscionable. To ask thousands of young people to pretend that they can "abduct themselves" into creating a new reality for the children in the northern Uganda is more than appalling – it is manipulative and undermines the horror of the last two decades of suffering over there.

One wonders if such theatrics are reserved for African settings; would anyone in the United States dare to create similar gimmicks to highlight the suffering of the victims of Katrina in New Orleans?

Ironically, the theatrics seem to work. Invisible Children have harnessed the technological savvy of the younger generation in order to empower them into finding meaning outside their lives.

Indeed, the founders of Invisible Children were three "normal" guys in California who loved surfing, playing sports and goofing around. They also loved making movies. So, in the quintessential Hollywood manner, they went off on an African adventure and decided that the situation in Acholi was intolerable. They went all the way to Garamba National Park where they claim they were allowed to film the on-going peace process late last year.

According to their website the natural progression of things begun from their initial interest in the northern part of Uganda and Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader. The peace talks ultimately collapsed in December 2008.

According to the BBC, indications are that the governments of Sudan, Uganda and Congo were never interested in the talks

There have been several attempts to end the Uganda conflict, including one headed by Betty Bigombe in 2004; then there was the recently aborted Juba Peace Talks; I attended a session in Juba in March 2007 that was sponsored by the Danish government, the United Nations and the government of Southern Sudan.

All have failed.

The people in the northern part of Uganda have suffered at the hands of the LRA; and, the failure of the Ugandan government to protect them while their plight has largely been ignored by the international community.

As Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court wonders in one of the Invisible Children videos: "Who has interest in the Ugandans; in the Acholis? They have no oil, nothing to win, so how much effort do we have out there? Not a lot. So just as you are moving there, they will put efforts."

Moreno-Ocampo might not have been aware of the mineral riches in Acholi at the time of his interview. Within the last year, first grade oil reserves have been discovered in Acholi’s Amuru region. There are now fears that, because of this new found potential wealth, things could worsen, if the government continues to oppress and deprive the Acholi, fuelling the kind of insurrection we see in Nigeria’s Ogoni region.

Perhaps it is not so sad that the efforts are strengthened by the organizations like the Invisible Children. Perhaps it is not so heartbreaking that because of their work, and evidence of their passion in harnessing technology, the children in the northern part of Uganda will finally be recognized as people who deserve a better chance at life.

Ironically, the northern part of Uganda is extremely fertile and should never even be a charity case. Acholi-land is a fertile stretch where food is harvested twice a year. Before thousands of mango trees were cut down by the government during the war against the LRA, several varieties of mangoes grew in Acholi.

Sorghum, rice, millet groundnuts, potatoes, banana, oranges, grapefruit, sheanut, palm, cotton, and even vanilla are abundant in Acholi. Everything grows over there.

Children in Uganda outside of Kony’s miserable army in the Congo still suffer terribly even with the backdrop of sorghum ready for the harvest and banana trees swaying in the distance.

I just received this link in my facebook 

It shows a video of two undernourished and abandoned siblings lying outside in the dusty homestead. It is evident that both brother and sister, Sam and Esther, have been dragging themselves in circles, creating circular macabre sand angels with their little bodies because they do not have the energy to drag themselves forward, only around and around on the same spot. Both are too weak to get up when a camera crew from the San Damiano Foundation happened upon them in Serere, eastern Uganda.

So even with the good they accomplish, I do have concerns with Invisible Children going in, Rambo-style. I feel sad knowing that the best intentions of this organization as with others that are alike, there is a refusal to recognize that there is something gruesome behind these antics: sleeping in the streets; "displacing" one’s self; and, now "abducting" one’s self in solidarity with the children in the northern part of Uganda.

At whose expense does it come?

A whole generation of Acholi was born and grew up to adulthood in the government-created camps for internally displaced people. For years they were dying at the rate of 1,000 per week according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and in plain view of the rest of the world.

This generation has grown up without the strong Acholi culture that for generations held the people together with their traditional values. I have not even begun to think about the 30,000 children who have not been accounted for over the years. What kind of people can come through this unscathed?

Ours will take many generations to heal from the legacy of Joseph Kony, the LRA and the Uganda government that failed to protect its own people; as well as the rest of the world that watched in silence.

Let no "self abduction," or any other antics deceive anyone that this is all it takes.

To learn more about the Acholi calamity:

For Invisible Children information on the upcoming ‘abduction’:


Juliane Okot Bitek is an Acholi woman living in Vancouver, Canada. She writes as she lives, thinking about a place to call home much of the time.

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