We Aren’t the World: Kony 2012, Kenyans for Kenya and the Cultural Roots of Greg Mortenson

A few years ago, I was on an assignment in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu, when I stopped at a cafe run by the organization called Invisible Children, now made famous by their Kony 2012 video.  The restaurant was sleek place, with wifi and coffee and a bunch of aid workers sitting around in their down time. I thought I might order something, but the prices were beyond my traveler’s budget. It wasn’t a business that seemed viable once the UN and the other NGO’s went away.

That was more or less the extent of my experience with Invisible Children until this year, when the Kony 2012 video was unleashed and we were were deluged with stories not really about the LRA or Joseph Kony, but about the video and its makers.  It’s hard to explain what was so maddening about this.  After all, weren’t they doing something good?  Didn’t they mean well?  Wasn’t what they were saying true?

The answer is a highly qualified “yes” to all those. The problem, as others have pointed out better than I can, is that the storyline in the video is tailored to a 200-year-old narrative where Africa is a helpless child that needs help from a Western adult.  It’s a narrative that Teju Cole now famously called the White Savior Industrial Complex and it still has the power to move mountains of money, as we saw with the Greg Mortenson affair last year.  Mortenson grew up as a missionary in East Africa and studied this fundraising technique well.

One reason for the persistence of this storyline is that it’s embedded in the very idea of culture, which was formalized (in English) with the 1871 publication of Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture, the book that effectively launched the field of anthropology. In it, Tylor outlines his vision of the past, cribbed partly from Darwin and partly from the Bible.  He asserted that human beings began in a primal state of nature called “savagery.”  As things improved they picked up skills like metallurgy, manufacturing and morals, which marked their transition into “barbarism.”  Then in the final stage, they arrived at civilization, which he also called Culture with a capital “C.”

Anthropologists, Tylor wrote, were not supposed to merely study human culture, but to improve it.  Their task was to root out the old savage beliefs and replace them with newer and better ones.  Civilized ones. “[W]here barbaric hordes groped blindly, cultured men can often move onward with a clear view,” he wrote. “It is [the] office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.”

This is the soundtrack that plays in the background of Kony 2012.

The problem is that, for those of us who have spent time in different parts of Africa, seeing those places through this frame makes them barely recognizable.  It simply doesn’t correspond to the present-day reality, which is far more complex and interesting and human.

Last fall, for example, I was in Nairobi and one of the stories I was working on was about the famine in the Horn of Africa. This was not your typical Africa-as-helpless-victim story, a la Nicholas Kristof.  It was about a group of relatively well off Kenyans who were raising money for famine relief in their own country.  The people I was writing about were Nairobi-based Rotarians, but they were part of a larger effort called Kenyans for Kenya which raised $8 million to send food relief to the Turkana region of Kenya.

This is all fairly straightforward stuff,  to fans of Kony 2012, Kristof and Greg Mortenson, it might seem like something new.  I would never have done the story if it had fallen on the Kony 2012/White Savior spectrum, because the point of those stories is never the story itself.  As Dinaw Mengestu observed, “the real star of Kony 2012 isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us.”  It’s about the viewer as savior.  What I loved about Kenyans for Kenya is that it wasn’t.

The story, The Land that Rain Forgot, is not one that will change the world. But I hope it at least shows how the world can change.  You can read it here.


  1. Frankbures – do you speak fluent Swahili (or Kichagga, or Masaai) as Mortenson does? He also speaks several languages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the true test that separates the real people from the outsider ‘do gooders’.

  2. My parents were friends with Mortenson’s parents in Tanzania.

    You are incorrect: Mortenson grew up first in Luindai (near Soni) in the Usamabara mountains for several years. It was a remote area, without running water, electricity, and there was no road even to his mud house. Later, he moved to Moshi, which is certainly urban area.

    • Sorry. I stand corrected. Still I think calling him “one of them” is meaningless and irresponsible. Though I suppose if she means he ran CAI the way Mobutu ran Zaire, or Moi ran Kenya, she may have a point.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I am familiar with Moshi, where he grew up. It’s a small town, but to call it rural would be a stretch. Also, to say someone growing up in well-to-do expatriate/missionary circles in an area like that is “one of them,” is inaccurate at best.

  4. Greg Mortenson grew up in rural Tanzania for the first fifteen years of his life. Swahili was his first language. His first real exposure to American ‘culture’ was in the U.S. military. In his books, he says he is a product of the third world, an a African at heart. His wife also was quoted as saying, “he is not one of us; he is one of them (meaning third world).

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