“I grew up sleeping every night in the jungle. We huddled together, in fear, in the dense bushes, hiding from the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. They would kidnap us as children, force us to commit murder and rape against our family and community. Us girls ended up as sex slaves to the leaders. I stand here today. I am safe. My family is safe. I know that your solidarity and spotlight you put on the atrocities of Kony, the murderous warlord of our region is the reason.”
This is the story of Collines Angwech. She is passionate. It’s hard not to be moved by her courage. She speaks with conviction of her real-life horror. Born in northern Uganda, her family was displaced by war.
She is one of the thousands who have been helped by Invisible Children, a US-based NGO which built a global campaign against the LRA and who sponsored her to complete her studies. “I am part of the 1% in northern Uganda who has a university degree,” she proudly confirms.
Collines now works for an NGO called Haven of Hope in northern Uganda, treating so-called ‘nodding disease’, a mysterious illness that devastates over 3,000 children by triggering a variety of symptoms including seizures, the inability to speak, and the inability to consume food.
It’s inspiring listening to Collines. “One thing that I learned and I think inspires me every day is the power of activism – taking action on an individual level – not just seeing a situation and saying ‘Wow, God, that is hard. But knowing that whoever we are, we all have something to give to make a change.”
Watch: TEDxTeen – Collines Angwech – Life Beyond Conflicts
The LRA’s bloody trail of destruction – which kidnapped close to 30,000 children and forced them to become child soldiers and displaced half a million people across northern Uganda and the region – has largely ended. It is been reduced to a rag tail gang of about 250 fighters. With coordinated action between the UN, governments of the region and organisations like Invisible Children, it is becoming isolated. It’s a matter of time before Kony is captured or killed.
So what has Invisible Children really achieved? There has been some controversy on its role.
I am at their Fourth Estate Conference that brought together 1,500 young people from across the US, discussing their vision of the world they want; one without human greed, the obscenity of material consumption that has brought our planet to the precipice; one that stokes wars over resources and finances the rampage that takes such a horrifying toll on human life and families like that of Collines.
In my speech I reflected on the moment that stirred my decision to become politically active. Apartheid was an unspeakable heresy that stole our human dignity. I was four years old when we were evicted from our home because, to Apartheid planners, we were the wrong colour on the wrong side of the street. I grew up angry, prepared to lash out at anyone in my path to social delinquency.
I went to a political meeting addressed by Steve Biko and a light switch was turned on in my head. His words still ring out as if it was yesterday: “You have nothing to lose but your chains. The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.”
Listening to him, I found my cause. “We blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves.” My anger was channelled into the fight for social and political justice.
Were we naïve and idealistic? Absolutely. Our parents were terrified that we would be detained, tortured and even killed. But imagine if that generation of 1976 did not stand up. Would we have won democracy? My answer is a definitive ‘no’.
Here, in the imposing architecture of the University of California (UCLA), I find the same passion, idealism and naivete. It is far away from the horrors of civil war and violence that 1, 5 billion people live each day in our world. But those who make the guns that kill innocent people don’t live in Africa or countries where conflict is endemic.
Those who really benefit from the resource wars which fuel our global conflicts live in glass skyscrapers, drinking champagne and eating caviar, far from the misery and untold human suffering that afflict places like the Great Lakes region.
They live in industrialised countries like the USA.
Therefore the role that Invisible Children has played is more important than many of the endless conferences I have been to.
They have organised millions of young American students and educated them about where Uganda is, what the African Union is and what they can do to stop the murderous actions of the LRA. They have mobilised public opinion, including the viral movies they made, that reached hundreds of millions of people. They have canvassed their local Congress representatives, marched in their thousands in Washington and across the world and even got President Obama to sign the LRA law.
President Obama, incidentally, commended Congress and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who mobilised to draw attention to this “unique crisis of conscience.” “We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards – you have made the plight of the children visible to us all,” Obama said. “Your action represents the very best of American leadership around the world, and we are committed to working with you in pursuit of the future of peace and dignity that the people of who have suffered at the hands of the LRA deserve.”
In addition, Invisible Children has enabled hundreds of communities to be secure, to harness technology that provides an early warning system, to have their own radio stations and to enable hundreds of students from these communities to further their studies.
That’s idealism that you have to admire. That is what is more important for us in Africa. That solidarity I remember in my time as a trade unionist often meant the difference between life and death for us in the trenches of struggle. It gave us strength to confront the armed might of a hostile state with is brutal security forces. That people-to-people solidarity is what pushed the western governments to take action to isolate the Apartheid state.
The next generation has a right to dream. I feel the cold winds of cynicism that characterises my generation; one that places roadblocks in the path of change. It must be challenged.
I have learnt from Mandela and his generation about the power of active listening with humility. I learnt that building trust was critical. I learnt that change comes from patiently and painstakingly co-creating a vision with local communities, building the tools that empower local leadership, that give the people the confidence to fight their battles and learn from their successes and failures. I learnt to connect the dots of our global vision with the bread-and-butter issues faces by local communities.
Now I am here to support the next generation find its dream, its voice and its struggle for the world that they want. In a world faced with a crisis of the economy and joblessness that is driving rising poverty and inequality, the daily ecological disasters driven by our human greed and the food and fuel crisis, they are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today.
The counter-culture that I was part of for a weekend may be dismissed by many, but it represents to me the real flame of future of our humanity and indeed human survival. It was an unadulterated dose of innocence, honesty, passion and empathy. It was idealistic. It is swimming against hostile currents of our vested economic and political elites but it held the promise of a better world; one built on a foundation of justice and belief that we are part of one human race.
A future that espouses the dream that Martin Luther King had; that we should live in a world where our people have equal rights; where morality and compassion lie at the heart of civilisation; and one where “our children not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” DM
Jay Naidoo was a keynote speaker at the Invisible Children Fourth Estate Conference held on 9 -11 August in Los Angeles, USA.
"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings." ~ Ursula Le Guin