A version of this piece appeared on Change.org’s Human Rights blog.
You wouldn’t think that a 22-year-long Central African insurgency, notorious for its mutilation tactics, child abductions, and sex slavery, would make good fodder for comedy. I certainly didn’t, when the book The Worst Date Ever, featuring a cover photo of a scantily clad dyed-blonde landed on my desk about a year ago.
But author Jane Bussmann’s recent comedy show rendition of her book gave a new spin to human rights advocacy and some of the factors perpetuating Africa’s longest-running war, not to mention it gave the NGO/U.N.-heavy Nairobi audience a healthy dose of self-consciousness. Describing her first visit to the Acholi Inn, the nicest hotel in northern Uganda, Bussmann said she found the bar “full of Westerners come to save the children,” documentary filmmakers, NGO workers, and diplomats. “Apparently you had to work for a charity to afford to stay there,” she said.
Jane Bussmann’s quest to join the ranks of what she calls the Useful People leads her from the world of celebrity journalism in Hollywood to Uganda, first as a teacher then as an aspiring foreign correspondent. True, there was an ulterior motive: “John Prendergast would fancy me.”
In Bussmann’s words, appropriately delivered in her classy British accent: This bloke’s day job is to end war. In Africa. A renegade White House Director of African Affairs under Clinton. The rock star of human rights violations. (Co-founding the Enough Project came later.)
When she turns up in northern Uganda, lip-plumping gloss in hand, for her date – or interview, rather – with John Prendergast, she finds she’s been stood up. Prendergast had to return to Washington; his meeting with Ugandan President Museveni to discuss a peace process for the Lord’s Resistance Army had been rescheduled. Bound and determined to write the story that will expose the horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and, as she tells it, catch Prendergast’s attention with her dedication to the cause, Bussmann stays in northern Uganda and begins covering the under-reported war.
Interviewing army commanders, priests, civil society leaders, former child soldiers, mediators, NGO workers, and politicians, Bussmann pieced together evidence that rather than working to end the insurgency, the Ugandan government was actively sabotaging efforts to coax Kony out of the bush and rescue child soldiers.
It’s 2005, and numerous attempts at peace talks have failed to stop Kony and his marauding band of fighters, or address the legitimate grievances that once lent some justification to Kony’s movement – though time and tactics clearly perverted them. Communities in northern Uganda were coping as best they could. “Like a Stephen King novel” is how Bussmann described her first encounter with the “night commuters” – children who journey from their villages to northern Uganda’s largest city as night falls to sleep under the watch of armed guards at the bus terminal to avoid being abducted and ‘conscripted’ by the LRA.
But the insurgency had been a boon for business, which is why, Bussmann (controversially) reasons, Kony had been allowed to get away for so many years. By 2005, Museveni had deployed some 40,000 Ugandan soldiers to track Kony and his fighters. But rather than look for Kony, “they were next door, in the Congo, full of gold and diamonds, in a feeding frenzy.” Bussmann is shocked – and then not so shocked – to learn that the Ugandan army commander responsible for the military offensive against the LRA owned the Acholi Inn, where the expats sent to deal with the humanitarian crisis came to spend their expense accounts.
“This story is bigger than John Prendergast. It’s kids getting bombed, it’s the army letting a kidnapper run free, and it’s Britain and America funding them,” she wrote in the book on which her comedy show is based.
Fast-forward to 2010, and the situation doesn’t look much different – only now the LRA is more decentralized and has spread across Central Africa. The Ugandan army still pursues the rebels – and faces allegations of human rights abuses and involvement in Congo’s sordid mineral trade. Some analysts say the LRA is plotting its return to northern Uganda.
So, five years since her first time touching down in Africa, Bussmann brought her show here. Without a doubt, it’s a comedy show, one in which Bussmann regaled the Nairobi audience with her self-deprecating humor and dry delivery. (I’ve had to select quotes carefully to avoid profanities.)
Some of the obstacles she faced in her rise to becoming a real-life foreign correspondent are unavoidable: That her pitches fell on deaf ears because her stories feature too few celebrities or ‘too many Africans’ is clearly not her fault. (“We’ve already had Africa Week,” one editor told her in all honesty.) But other setbacks were entirely her making – charmingly so. In a frenzy to draft 2,000 words for the UK’s preeminent Sunday Times, she mistakenly sent the outline of her story to Sean Haynes of "Will and Grace" fame, rather than to foreign editor Sean Ryan. (She was a celebrity journalist after all.) Having heard nothing from Bussmann, Sean Ryan canned the piece.
But at its core, Bussmann’s performance, like the book, reflects a deep concern about the human tragedy that has been allowed – by the Ugandan government and the international community – to transpire in Central Africa. Speaking to her after the show, Bussmann said she will closely follow the rollout of the new U.S. strategy for confronting the LRA, mandated through the LRA bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama
in May. (The strategy is due to President Obama in November.) The British government needs to take similar resolve to address this conflict, Bussmann said.
Next stop on her show tour? The British Houses of Parliament.*
*Bussmann says she’s still sorting out whether the show will just be open for members of Parliament and Lords or whether she can smuggle others into the very cool building. For a full listing of Jane Bussmann’s upcoming performances in London, Los Angeles, and New York, check out janebussmann.com/live-shows.