The independent Norwegian film Kitchen Stories (2003) chronicles the absurd adventures of a Swedish research team who embarks on a study of Norwegian bachelors’ domestic life. The Swedish protagonist, Folke, is assigned to sit on a six-foot tall chair and observe the actions of his subject, Isak, in the kitchen. Isak is initially reluctant, but over time the pair form an unspoken solidarity. The film’s climax comes when Folke steps off his chair and begins listening Isak, identifying with his struggles, sharing his pickled herring, and greatly upsetting the powers that be. In doing so, the two forge a friendship that proves to transform the entire village.
That moment of “getting off the chair” laid the groundwork for my most recent paper, a critical analysis of Sverker Finnstrom’s Living with Bad Surroundings. The book is a brilliantly written glimpse into the life and culture of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda, who have been caught between an autocratic government and horrific rebel factions for the last twenty years.
Finnstrom, an anthropologist, starts off interviewing people in the displaced-person camps that dot the region. He starts hearing stories of people who are openly critical of the humanitarian’s efforts in the region. The politically engaged nature of Finnstrom’s work got him banned from conducting interviews at Red Cross camps. Consequently, Finnstrom leaves the humanitarian envoys he had been traveling with and hires a second-hand motorbike to traverse the region. In doing so, he gets a rich and complicated picture of the struggle for Northern Uganda and people’s everyday life in the midst of atrocious conditions.
Four years after the book was published, Uganda hit global headlines again when US based Invisible Children launched their KONY 2012 campaign. You probably remember it. Reading this book, I went back and watched the video again.
There’s a lot of problems with the campaign. Finnstrom, a global expert on the conflict, wrote a response, arguing that the film “reduces, depoliticizes and dehistoricizes a murky reality of globalized war into an essentialized black-and-white story”. He also points out that Invisible Children’s solution– send US soldiers to Uganda to help hunt down Kony– is probably not the most ideal plan.
Finnstrom’s critique was scathingly well written. It provided a lynchpin for the conclusion of my paper, where I showed how entering into relationship with those you are studying allows you to tell an alternative story about their history.
But just as I was about to finish, I went back to check out one detail about Invisible Children. When I went to their website, I found a link to an interview with their CEO (a rather normal guy named Ben Keesey, not the infamous Jason Russell). The whole story reads like a sad sigh, as Keesey reflects on what caused Invisible Children to falter.
By the time I was finished, I was pretty heavy hearted. Not angry, not critical, just sad. I reflected; “What’s the use of all this critical analysis if it serves to shut down the efforts of a group of people who are incredibly passionate about helping children in Uganda?”
I’ll have to disclaim. I totally agree with Finnstrom about the disingenuous and harmful nature of the KONY campaign. But the demise of Invisible Children still makes me sad. Can we do anything better for the people of Uganda than just bicker about how they are represented? Neither Finnstrom and Invisible Children find a balance; somehow we need to be authentic and active.
I look back to Kitchen Stories. The movie is ridiculous, yes, but it concludes with touching scenes of Folke and Isak taking significant risks to save each other’s lives. I realise that I need to get off the chair and start listening, but also go beyond that: to take the risk of offering life saving relationship.
*I didn’t know this when I started writing this post, but I’ll be moving to Malawi in September to work with (probably) a youth development organisation there. Before anything else, I want to bring with me a humble attitude of listening and a willingness to enter into relationship with the people I meet.