Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone

For the activist-scholar research can mean navigating between different audiences, modes, and ethics of representation.

When the Kony 2012 video went viral, it sparked numerous conversations about Western activism and Africa. The video focused on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that started in northern Uganda, and the US-led social movement to end the conflict through mass mobilization and advocacy. Public debates over the facts of the civil war in Uganda and the ethics and optics of online activism appeared across the news media, and academics tried their best to add their voices to discussion (see Taub 2012). These debates often did not share the same audiences, however, and many good arguments passed by each other unseen or unheard. Invisible Children, the NGO that produced Kony 2012 and runs numerous development programs in Uganda and central Africa, was my route into researching and writing about conflict and intervention in Africa. Ten years ago this January, I was a high school student watching Invisible Children’s eponymous film about children who walked miles every day to seek shelter from rebel raids. In college I raised money to help rebuild a high school in northern Uganda, I lobbied elected officials to do more to stop the war, and I even slept outside in a field with thousands of others to raise awareness about the effects of the conflict. Now I often find myself at odds with the organization as I write about militarization and intervention in the same conflict, but for what kind of audience?

William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Anthropologists increasingly seek to engage a broader, public audience in their work, to impact conversations beyond the academy. Often described in terms that imply a deficiency—as undeveloped, as failed states, as backwards—Africa in the global imagination is glossed as wide savannahs, civil wars, or a starving child. Scholars of conflict in Africa have the task of representing their field of study in a way that doesn’t reinforce these stereotypes of a dark continent, a coming anarchy, an object needing a white savior.

But the call for anthropologists to reach out to the public, and the call to represent “Africa” in particular ways, assumes a singular mass public that doesn’t exist; in reality, we face a multitude of publics. After all, the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

In the spirit of the conversational dialogue in which this edited collection began, I want to offer a few reflections on my own attempts to research and write about this conflict, a war that has been heavily researched and written about but is nonetheless often described in the public sphere in ways that emphasize the spectacle of the conflict while ignoring the political and social realities of the war. I aim to highlight some issues of activism, writing, and relationships as I experienced them; issues that perhaps others have encountered elsewhere.

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Soon after the release of Kony 2012, the LRA commander Caesar Acellam was taken into custody, but not arrested. Many people in northern Uganda believe that a majority of rebels should be reintegrated into society without a formal criminal trial. Most rebels are child soldiers and are thus perceived as victims who need assistance, rather than as perpetrators of violence. In the aftermath of the news, I saw several people like me—young people involved in activism with Invisible Children or Resolve, a D.C.-based organization working on the conflict—post questions on social media querying why Acellam should go free. The Resolve staff explained the nuance of the legal and moral quagmire around child soldiers as best as they could. Much of this was never addressed in videos and campaign literature that focused on the evils of Joseph Kony, the rebel commander, and the innocence of young children abducted by the rebels. After all, Acellam was himself kidnapped in the 1980s and had grown old in the bush: he doesn’t look like a child soldier. It took work to get activists concerned with justice to come to an understanding of the (contested) local conceptions of what could and should be done.

About a year later, I pitched an article to an online magazine marking the one-year anniversary of Kony 2012. Highlighting the positive and negative aspects of counter-LRA efforts on the ground, from lessons for activism and critiques of representation to legislative successes and worries about militarization, I saw the article as a nuanced overview. One of the editors remarked that she saw my article as “a successful vindication piece” after the critical backlash against the Kony 2012 campaign. I lingered on that note for a long time, unaware that my writing would be interpreted in that way. Despite my intentions, my work was being categorized as either for or against Invisible Children’s narrative and reputation. I had to figure out what a middle path might look like.

The question of how to navigate different publics comes up whenever I try to write or present my work. I once presented a paper on the International Criminal Court and the LRA conflict on a panel about Western advocacy in African conflicts at the African Studies Association annual meeting, for which someone from Resolve acted as discussant. It was a fruitful conversation about advocacy and its repercussions, and Invisible Children was invoked several times. On Twitter (along with a few others, I live-tweeted the panel in an effort to reach a larger audience) an Invisible Children employee (and one of my interlocutors) criticized the panel for not featuring anyone from Invisible Children. During the Q & A, one academic pointed out that as a panel we had defined activism as separate from scholarship, forgetting that activism is integral to much research. In a space bridging an academic public and a digital one, we were caught in the middle, and what it means to do activism looks very different depending on who you’re speaking to.

This past summer, I attempted to research counter-LRA efforts. Another friend from Invisible Children put me in touch with numerous civil society contacts, and I tried to define my role as separate from the NGO. I had to decide how to situate myself in the eyes of a range of interlocutors who often worked together or alongside one another, but also in the eyes of a range of potential interlocutors in those communities with whom I had yet to establish relations. Navigating affiliations (with Invisible Children and with the category of “academic”) was a constant challenge as I tried to talk with civil society organizations, NGO staff, and the military. Each audience, each public, interpreted my fieldwork differently, just as they had with my writing.

***

After years working alongside activists to raise awareness about this conflict, I’ve turned towards research as a way to talk about the same underlying issues of violence, displacement, and intervention. Inherent in this transition is thinking about how we talk about the war: the perspectives we privilege, the assumptions we make, the words we use. But this transition is also one of thinking about how to navigate social situations, as Chloe Ahmann’s piece in this collection alludes to, and of how our writing is interpreted by our interlocutors, as Hugh Gusterson notes. In the field and in my writing, I navigate different publics. I came to this conflict as a part of the Invisible Children/Resolve community, but my position has changed over time. I still travel among the same people and my friends have also become at certain times my interlocutors and at other times my critics. My work is shaped by multiple audiences which interpret my work in different ways, in a continual dialogue. Debates often call for the anthropologist to choose sides, even as we might try to negotiate a space in the middle. My interlocutors are NGO staff, civil society organizations, former child soldiers, and their victims—it’s not entirely clear who I’m writing for or on whose behalf I write (it’s also unclear if that’s even a useful way of thinking about ethnography). But as an anthropologist engaging in activism and with activists, it’s a negotiation that is continuous, with others and with myself.

Scott Ross is a PhD student in anthropology at The George Washington University. His research on the LRA conflict focuses on media interventions, international justice, and militarization in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tweets at @scott_a_ross and blogs at http://scottandrewross.com.

Further Reading

Allen, Tim and Koen Vlassenroot, eds.
2010. The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality. London: Zed Books.
Amony, Evelyn
2015. I am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming My Life from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Branch, Adam
2011. Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cakaj, Ledio
2016. When Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard. London: Zed Books.
Finnström, Sverker
2008. Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda. Durham: Duke University Press.

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