“We shoot our machine guns from trucks … We hate smiling. Smiling is stupid.”
Nyla Rodgers is one charity official who is fed up with the way nonprofits represent Africa. Too often she sees depictions of AIDS, warfare, famine, hopelessness, desperation, and dependence on a Western hero. That kind of concern came to the surface when she saw the “Kony 2012” campaign by the advocacy group Invisible Children.
“When I saw the Kony campaign, it made me so mad,” says Ms. Rodgers, founding director of Mama Hope, a San Francisco charity that works in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to start farms and build schools, health centers, and other facilities that strengthen communities.
In a somewhat related vein, Laurie Lee, deputy director of external relations in Europe for the Gates Foundation writes on the philanthropy’s Impatient Optimists blog about how violence and political instability is actually on the decline in Africa:
A downward trend in violent conflict over the last decade on its own might be too early to cheer about. It has not been irreversible in every country. But combined with positive trends in the last decade on democracy, economic growth and improvements in health and education, we can feel more confident that the progress made in Africa at the start of the 21st Century will be sustained and will continue.
Violent conflict is on the increase in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, and many are calling for action by the United Nations, the international community and others to prevent this from escalating into full-blown civil war.
But success in curbing such violence depends upon having an accurate picture of what’s driving the conflict.
“That is wrong,” said Bol Thong, a very tall father of eight who lives in a modest north Seattle home. (Listen to the interview at KPLU.org.) He and his family moved to the U.S. in 1995, settling in Seattle 10 years later, after fleeing the civil war violence that killed millions of people in Sudan between 1983 and 2005.
Bol Thong is director of an organization called Nuer Youth of North America. He said his organization exists to support the Nuer, one of the predominant ethnic/tribal communities of South Sudan.
The Nuer, who mostly raise cattle for a living, are frequently in conflict with another cattle-raising South Sudanese community known as the Murle tribe.
“This goes back hundreds of years,” Bol Thong said. At the root of it, he says, is competition for land, resources and, of course, the cattle.
Last year, the Murle attacked a Nuer community killing hundreds of people including women and children. In December, the Nuer retaliated — and even announced ahead of time that they were planning the attack.
“In the Nuer culture, you warn them ahead of time so they can remove the women and children,” said Bol Thong. “The Murle made genocide on us. We do not kill old people, women and children.”
But somebody did, according to the news reports. An estimated 8,000 Nuer fighters are said to have attacked the village they had warned, leaving hundreds, possibly thousands, dead — including women, old people and children. The United Nations, given the advance notice, had sent in 400 UN Peacekeepers but the force was much too small to do anything to stop the Nuer assault.
“Yes, just as the United Nations and the South Sudan government did nothing when the Murle came and killed our people,” Bol Thang said. “If the government and the international community do nothing to defend us, we need to defend ourselves.”
To those who condemn the Nuer assault as offensive rather than defensive, he says such views are simplistic and ahistorical. What of the United States’ attack on Afghanistan, he asks? Are the Neur supposed to just wait to be attacked?
“We are not a militia, or terrorists,” said Bol Thang. “This is an ongoing tribal conflict … They killed one of my family members last year.”
Most Americans would have a hard time imagining life without the police or the government enforcing laws, a life where one community can just decide to invade and kill without consequence. Bol Thang would like Americans to try a bit harder to imagine how they would respond under the same circumstances.
“I raised the money to support our community, to provide food and medical supplies,” he said. “Everybody already had guns.”