“If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t also believe that I have the power to change what is going on.”
This a quote from Rosebell Kagumire (video below), a Ugandan blogger, in a critique of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 video campaign that went viral this past week. While I don’t intend to enter into the Kony2012 critique in this space, her words have important implications for the broader development paradigm and representations of Africa at large.
I’ll admit: I wondered, even wished, what a viral video like Kony2012 would do for a small organization like Opportunity Africa. After all, a persistent problem like the undereducation of young people in a far-flung corner of the globe is never going to make headline news. Especially when the situation isn’t actively causing death and doesn’t have any shockingly disturbing images to accompany the story.
I was moved when I first watched the Kony2012 video — weren’t you? If only Opportunity Africa could make a video that moved people in such a way and generated worldwide awareness of the situation in eastern Cameroon almost overnight. Imagine the funds we could raise. Imagine the good we could do.
But the Kony2012 video illustrated that how an organization goes about raising awareness is important. And self-awareness may be the most important starting place.
I have always been acutely aware of the fact that I am a white, American woman who founded and runs an organization whose mission benefits Africans in a distinctly different socioeconomic category as me. I am extremely conscious of the possibility that such a structure echoes “The White Man’s Burden” sentiments and further perpetuates the narrative that Westerners are the only ones who can save the poor, hopeless, destitute Africans.
I worry about semantics — should we use the word “disadvantaged” to refer to the students to whom we provide assistance? What terms should we use to refer to a person or a community with expressed needs without disempowering them — especially in a scenario like ours, where the historical and sociopolitical paradigms are omnipresent and always implicit in our work?
But the needs do exist. And I am in a position to access resources that can address those needs. And as a fellow human being, it seems only just to mobilize those resources and partner with community members that first gave to me so generously, so selflessly during my undergraduate study abroad days.
Yes, I am a white, American, middle-class woman who founded and presides over an organization whose efforts aim to improve the lives of some Cameroonians who lack the resources to access what I consider to be a fundamental human right — education. Our board vice president is Cameroonian, currently living in the US, but hailing from the small village of Kentzou where our current programmatic efforts are focused. Without his knowledge of the situation on the ground and deep cultural understanding, our work could not happen. The rest of our board members are thoughtful, engaged, and committed individuals — a professor of African history; a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught in Kentzou schools for two years; an East African accountant, asylee, and NGO-worker; an American with a Master’s in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations.
We may not always get it right, but we are trying. Together, as a board, we are doing our best. Here is what I can promise you:
- We believe each one of our scholarship recipients, each one of the communities in which we work, has the power to change the situation on the ground. We strive never to present our program beneficiaries as hopeless or that their circumstances can only be changed by Westerners intervening on their behalf.
- We strive to present the situation on the ground accurately without oversimplifying and without sensationalizing. We aim to be frank, without being exploitative, about the true needs in our communities and the results we believe our programs and/or your contribution can achieve.
- We strive to engage the communities in which we work as key stakeholders so our programs are responsive, timely, and culturally appropriate.
- We strive to present the voices of our program beneficiaries and volunteers/stakeholders on the ground often (and on this, I think we can do more). In presenting their voices, we aim to show how we work with beneficiaries and their communities as architects of their own destiny — not as powerless or in need of being saved.
- We strive to be self-reflective of our positionality and conscious of the historical conditions that precede us and the political economic structures within which our work is implemented.
- We seek to set specific, measurable goals for our efforts (in coordination with local stakeholders). And we are committed to modifying or even changing our strategies if they don’t work. For us, aid isn’t about our priorities, or even just about raising awareness, but about what actually works.
I don’t know Jason Russell’s background (the founder of Invisible Children and filmmaker for the Kony2012 video). I’m not accusing him of not trying. But in the end, his approach was amiss — it was disingenuous and disempowering. I never want for Opportunity Africa’s programs or awareness-raising approaches to do this, nor to render anyone reached by our interventions as “invisible.”
At Opportunity Africa, we understand that in the long-run, positive change in Cameroon has to come from building local governmental and community capacity, not from aid or outside organizing. Groups like ours are a symptom (of weak, ineffective governance), not the solution. Consciousness-raising efforts like Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, that are directed primarily at external audiences but place no pressure on local government to actually respond to the needs of its citizens and provide effective social services for them, don’t really do much to create conditions for lasting change. Creating this sort of change takes place on a generational, not a viral-video, timescale.
So please, before anything Opportunity Africa does goes viral, let us know if you have concerns, if our approaches seem off-base, or if you think there are ways we can improve. You have a stake in our work, and we strive to be a platform for you as our constituents and stakeholders to engage in our work with your own thoughts, voice, and opinions.