A perfect digital (shit)storm: U.S. Christian missionary communication from Uganda

One of the recurring themes and aims of the blog is putting contemporary examples of popular communication about development issues into a broader context.
The aim is to supplement my academic teaching, research and outreach and to focus on broader contextual issue, for example journalistic development tourism, rather than a specific group of people, an organization or single campaign.

The case of the Oklahoma-based missionary organization Luket Ministries and their recent promotional video from Uganda as well as pictures from missionary volunteers for Tennessee-based 147 million orphans shed light on several broader issues:
How Uganda has become a playground for American Christian missionary work, how unregulated the industry is, how accountability is easily dismissed as missions simply refer to doing ‘God’s work’, how unwilling or unable many organizations are to engage with constructive criticism in a post-factual media landscape and lastly, how digital media add to new powerful (re)presentations of the self and ‘Africa’ in this context.

‘Our dance video came in a dream from God’

What sparked this discussion were several postings in my facebook network around Luket Ministries video from Uganda.
The dance video appeared, disappeared and reappeared and in the end YouTube user suguhcane uploaded video and lyrics.
Arao Ameny, a
Uganda-born journalist and writer from Lira currently based in Maryland, captured the video on her facebook page joined vivid discussions on her facebook page with the following comment:
I reached out to the ministry and (it's founder) Natasha to let her know it was inappropriate to mock my country Uganda and our cultures in this video.
Instead of listening to actual Ugandans (and American allies who are in development work) who tried to explain cultural appropriation, White Savior Complex and simply the need for organizations in African countries to be respectful and treat people with dignity, the creative director was dismissive and replied with “Everything posted is indeed controversial these days. We had our Ugandan pastors and staff view and edit before sharing to be respectful and promote missions. Please feel free to remove it from your feed”.
Screenshots from African Lives Matter
Maybe the all-white cast of the video clad in ‘exotic dresses’, holding black babies and fetching water is indeed a good way of promoting missions-which says a lot about the target audience-but as seasoned veterans of the Rusty Radiator award you can probably see why most viewers were critical about, if not offended by, the video. The references to dirt, disease and de-worming may be presented in a slightly more artistic, maybe even ironic way, but in the end the are meant to remind the viewer that it is important for us to bring development to them...

In connection with this video other users shared Instagram images of participants of the mission organization 147 million orphans that started their work in Uganda and since then has expanded.

The #heartexplosion of Madonna meeting
blondie mamas’ from Southern US.
Uganda has been in the news during the last couple of years in connection with missionary activities and their role in anti-gay legislation in the country.
As Andrew O
Hehir summed it up in “God Loves Uganda”: Africa’s terrifying Christian revival in 2013:
I suppose we can say that something about the combination of right-wing American Christianity and Uganda’s climate of post-colonial disorder has been uniquely dangerous and unstable, like mixing bleach and ammonia. It’s long past time for the forces of seculrism and tolerance, both in Africa and the West, to fight back.
That probably explains why Uganda has become such a fruitful playground for missionary endeavors which also raises important questions for the aid industry: Not only is the missionary sector fairly unregulated, but because it invokes a higher purpose (‘serving’ is used most of the time instead of ‘volunteering’ or similar terms), it seems to dodge questions about accountability and effectiveness, especially in the field of orphan and orphanage tourism which has come under increased scrutiny around the globe.

Post-factual resistance to listen and learn

I wrote about the challenges that our ‘post-factual’ era poses for communicating development and fostering critical debates in a recent post and missionary work can easily take these challenges to the next level:Our aim is not to please man, that can never happen, but the video pleased God, as Luket Ministries’ Natasha Perryman pointed out. 
I just hope God also applies OECD criteria for effective aid when he judges such efforts…but irony aside, it is concerning that the missionary sector very often does not do what they praise in terms of communal engagement and participatory learning and that a lot of their work in Uganda and elsewhere seems to be immune to critical debates that have been going on in the development or humanitarian sector for a long time.

Instagramming the self and Africa

Laura Akins posts on Instagram easily scored tens of thousands of likes. As with many social media campaigns, dance videos or orphan selfies require a lot of effort to make them look as authentic as possible (isn’t there something about vanity in the Good Book?!).
In the end, those representations reveal how ‘pure missionary work’ is embedded in contemporary mediatization efforts, happy to use technology to spread the word, but less prepared to use it a two-way communication channel to engage more critically with ethical issues about top-down development work in the orphanages of Uganda.
Arao Ameny
’s final conclusion of her post echoes important critique by TMS Ruge or Courtney Martin that has been featured on this blog as well:
I want Ugandans and Africans to see what we are allowing and what we are accepting to happen in our own country, in our continent. Why are our communities allowing organizations like this to exist and thrive? Why are we allowing our children to take part in music videos that belittle their identities?
I want future bright-eyed white Americans (which I find it strange don’t want to volunteer in Harlem or Detroit or Oakland or Tulsa here in America with black children and black communities who deserve just as much help and attention as the children in Jinja or Kampala or Lira but want to buy a 2,000 ticket to fly thousands of miles to Uganda to take pictures next to smiling black babies) to ask themselves and really think, THINK HARD, about why you are there and who are there for? Are you really there to support Ugandans on the ground or you there for yourself—for your ego, your resume, your latest Facebook profile photo or latest Instagram post taken with a beautiful Ugandan child hoisted on your back?
*Who* are you there for really?
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