I like Jimmy Choos, and I Hate Cheap Beer. Otherwise Known as The Reasons Why #Kony2012 is Being Criticized.

March 7, 2012 § 13 Comments

A month or so ago, I posted a blog about a mistake I made in my work in Uganda. It was @tmsruge who caught me. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his opinion and so, when he came down on me, I listened – and I learned.

He is in a kind of twitter “trifecta council” made up of himself, @DAWNInc founder & exec director @Semhar and @InnovateAfrica – a woman whose views on philanthropy, diaspora, social justice and gender continue to challenge and educate me on almost a daily basis. I recommend following all three of them, and keeping up on their work.

In my friendships in Uganda, I have learned something huge about myself. Namely, I will always be an outsider. I will always be 1/2 of a transnational business. I will always be a white woman. I will always be different. And, as much as we tried to combine our cultures, we often come to an impasse – we are called to different realities and, with it, different lives.

Let’s be real.

I like Jimmy Choos, and I hate cheap beer.

Oh, oh! And I’ll take the $8.00 chalice of Three Philosophers please. Oh, and that’s a chalice, not a glass. Right?

(PS – I don’t currently own Jimmy Choos. And, I just paid my phone bill, so I’m not drinking any expensive beer this week, don’t worry).

People criticize me for spending any kind of money while working in “aid.” But, here’s the reality I’ve had to learn about myself. I’m an American woman who partners with Ugandan artisans for the purpose of making money for both of us. And, we’re running a business, not a charity project. They benefit. I benefit. And, I don’t think any other kind of model is realistic.

However, I struggled with my identity in regards to Uganda for a long time. I began with feeling like I could never spend any money on myself, even selling my own things to pay bills and giving up a lot of my hopes and dreams in order to work in Africa.

Let’s be clear.

I chose to do that. No one in Uganda asked me to.

And, along the way, I realized that it just wasn’t sustainable. Beyond that, it wasn’t respectful.

I was not that way because I truly valued the powerful women I work with in Uganda. I did that because I was confused about my identity as a white girl working in central Uganda. I felt critical of myself for liking expensive things, handling things like a white girl would and for feeling the irresistible urge to kiss my porcelain toilet back in CA on more than one occasion.

I tried to change myself so that I would fit in better, tried to make my white a little less obvious. But, that’s not really very possible, and I have never been more aware of it than a certain day when I plopped myself down with a Nile Brew and a wireless orange connection at the airport. I’m not timid, so I sat in the middle of a group of men to watch the soccer game blaring from a small tv descending from a florescently lit airport ceiling.

I felt real cool with my Nile brew and soccer knowledge, until I realized everyone had stopped watching the game, and started staring at me instead.

Well, shit.

I returned home from that trip, in particular, with a deep need to re-define my role in Uganda. I had been criticized for the way I handled several situations like a Mzungu (white), and I felt angry – angry at Ugandan culture, angry at American culture – angry with myself, angry with the people criticizing me.

I spent about three months really delving into the heart of the issue, and it came back to identity, for me.

My mom helped. Over coffee, I poured out the tale of my African failures, ending with, “you know, I really handled things like a white girl, and I’ve got to stop DOING THAT!”

She stared at me. “You are a white girl,” she said. “Of course you handle things that way.”

She’s genius.

You wouldn’t think I needed to be reminded of that, but I did. I needed to remember that I’m white, that I was born in America and that the fact of the matter is that I run a transnational business in Uganda. So, here’s how that works – I have Ugandans that run my company in Uganda, and I run it here. Hence, the need for two cultures, two colors – two perspectives, two different people groups.

In my acceptance of myself, I was able to realize that, in a lot of ways, I had been incredibly prideful. I had come into Uganda with the belief that I had better solutions for issues on the ground, that the weight of saving a village was on my shoulders and that  knew better how to handle emergency situations, village conflicts and the establishment of organized business in a country I’ve been traveling to for three years.

Imagine if my Ugandan partner walked into a shop on Melrose and whispered, before entering – “Don’t worry Shan, I’ve got this one covered, you just watch and learn while I take on LA.”

Crazy, right?

So, I’ve begun to learn that I have a lot to learn. And, within that paradigm, I’ve been able to embrace my place as a white girl, apologize for my shortcomings, ask for help and advice and begin to better understand a place that my Ugandan friends are just as anxious to help me understand as I am to help them understand my culture.

I’ve learned to be quiet more often, and to assume, walking into situation, that I there are cultural factors I’m ignorant of, and will be brought up to speed about later.

Here’s some full disclosure. Just this week, I had to work through a myriad of emails regarding management on the ground, and how best to run it from a Ugandan perspective. I went to bed exhausted, humbled and yet feeling more comfortable than ever in my new shoes as a white girl partnering with a fantastic group of educated, powerful Ugandan leaders and artisans.

Imagine my lack of surprise, then, when I discovered #KONY2012, and, with it, criticism coming from the likes of @tmsruge  @Semhar and @InnovateAfrica.

While Invisible Children has done great work educating “the rest of us” about a conflict in Africa, you could perhaps say they have failed to take their place in African culture as a group of whites seeking to partner with powerful, educated Ugandans, rather than spreading the idealism that Ugandans need a young American Dad with a pre-schooler to save their sorry asses.

Then again, I’m an American woman.

You would do much better reading what Rosebell Kagumire Maureen Agena, and Echwalu Edward have to say, for starters.

These people are just three of hundreds of activists, journalists and experts in Uganda that are speaking about their views in Invisible Children’s campaign that shows co-founder Jason as someone taking on the bad guys in Uganda, and saving the day in the pearl of Africa.

Turns out, Uganda’s been working to save itself for a long time now.

PS – here’s a fantastic drinking game to go along with the #KONY2012 campaign video.

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§ 13 Responses to I like Jimmy Choos, and I Hate Cheap Beer. Otherwise Known as The Reasons Why #Kony2012 is Being Criticized.

  • margejphoto says:

    thank you for this!

  • [...] I like Jimmy Choos, and I Hate Cheap Beer. Otherwise Know as The Reasons Why #Kony2012 is Being Cri… (Voy’em) [...]

  • Samie says:

    Reblogged this on [black.ink.pen].

  • hopefulleigh says:

    Thank you for this response, Shan! I was curious whether you’d weigh in.

  • [...] “I like Jimmy Choos, and I Hate Cheap Beer. Otherwise Known as The Reasons Why #Kony2012 is Be… [...]

  • [...] Knox does some reflecting on interacting in Uganda as a savior versus a [...]

  • So REAL and HONEST Shan, thank you!

  • James says:

    i like your response..i think it’s great..but as a Black American, sweetheart, all i have to say is welcome to the club. I am the millions like me, have lived our entire lives as the “other” in our own country. You’re not that special, you just happen to be in a foreign culture. I’ve been to Uganda, and they see me just as different as you are, and i’m black. That’s the problem, white Americans have lived their entire lives being the majority, so when they go somewhere different, you think you’re reinventing the wheel. Wake up, it was done centuries before you, and white people will be visiting Uganda 100 years from now. It’s not that big of a deal, just do your job, and be yourself.

  • cereja says:

    Thanks for the great read! I wish that more people understood what you learned. I had the chance of visiting Uganda five years ago for a couple of weeks. Before I left, the first thing everyone kept asking me was where I would be volunteering. They seemed surprised when I told them, “I’m not volunteering, I’m going on vacation.”

    I feel that Kony 2012 does nothing but push the myth of “the poor helpless African” who would only fare better if they had our Western Wisdom. I watched the video, and I was shocked and angered by the fact that the interviewee kept interrupting the few Ugandans he interviewed, not even letting them speak their piece, instead trying to steer the conversation a specific way. I was disgusted and saddened by this.

    The people who are clicking blindly to support this see only “those poor black people” and know nothing of things like IDP camps, the Acholi people or Operation Iron Fist. Every time the government has decided to try to seriously crush Kony, things have only gotten worse for the Northern Ugandans. I wish people understood the stakes of pushing to re-ignite the conflict. This emotional whitewashing is dangerous.

  • [...] topic covered the dangers of “crowdsourcing intervention.”  Shanley Knox does some reflecting on interacting in Uganda as a savior versus a partner.  Hayes Brown looks at whether or not the UN could harness the [...]

  • Akhila says:

    Love this post. Honest, brave and beautiful as is everything you write.

  • Alexandra Ostrow says:

    Shanley –

    This is an incredibly written post, and one I very strongly identify with. Thank you so much for sharing, and for speaking so frankly on the subject. I truly admire you and your work.

    PS Your title – genius.

  • [...] I can understand the complexity inherent in working abroad, in being an ‘Everyday Ambassador’.  And I feel, at first, frustrated when people speak to me as though development could be a way for [...]

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