Billie Okae Kadameri - Kony Himself Finds Art and Culture to Be Therapeutic

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Apr 24, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Billie Okae Kadameri - Kony Himself Finds Art and Culture to Be Therapeutic

Journalist Kadameri has covered conflict in Africa for decades. He discusses how media and the arts are important indicators of both pre- and post-war problems Billie Okae Kadameri presents back on his group project work at Session 532

As a journalist, Billie Okae Kadameri is more familiar with the phrase “bad news makes good news” than most. He has had the (mis)fortune over his prolific career to report on desperate situations in countries across Africa while reporting for Radio France Internationale, and France 24's English Service where he has been an editor for 11 years. Through his work, he has not only looked into the devastation of conflict, but how media involvement provides a dynamic network through which societal restoration and healing can be spread.

“You look at the human suffering and you put yourself in the situation of the victims and you imagine that you are them. Eventually you need to get back there and see some good stories coming out of a very bad situation and you find that in such situations, people lose a lot. There is a huge gap between the present reality and culture, and a lot of cultural heritage gets lost in conflict situations, but culture and arts helps in the healing process,” he explains in an interview during the session Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts, held at Schloss Leopoldskron by Salzburg Global Seminar in April.

Indeed, the media landscape has drastically transformed in Africa over the past two decades. From a virtually non-existent sphere, Africans now have a rapidly expanding media and a platform on which to debate, share and interact. In 1993, for example, Uganda only had one national radio station, today there are 280. There was one national TV station, today there are 56. This influx of media by which to voice opinion is certainly a powerful tool for healing.

“People do know that the media can be a very dangerous tool, but they cannot run away from the fact that it is very important too and there is massive, massive penetration of the media in modern daily life through the tools of technology all over Africa. This permeates society and people love it, and one of the best ways of entertaining people and making people happy in their everyday lives is through these media platforms,” adds Kadameri.

Of course, the danger alluded to by Kadameri cannot be denied. When media really first took off in Africa, there was a great deal of abuse that has instigated a new onus for responsibility and ownership of the media. The terrible lessons of Radio Rwanda inciting genocide 20 years ago, and Kenyan papers having to bring in self-censorship in 2008 following political riots, serve as a constant reminder of the need to treat the domain carefully.

“We know that art and culture have been using conflict flash points both as a therapeutic thing to help people remember and forget, and it can also be used as a tool for evil. It can ignite conflict... So there is a role there for the media in transmitting the reality of the situation and in helping people to reflect and make us look at the common good for mankind.”

One of the most positive aspects of media is the way it allows art to connect across borders. Whereas previously art had a much more limited potential in Africa, and was largely restricted to localised areas, the radio and phones make art much more accessible and this brings a fervour for culture even in the midst of conflict. “The more people talk about tensions within society, the greater the possibility that that tension will be diffused before it becomes something terrible. So the media is a powerful tool. And I have been to places like South Sudan, which is still in conflict now, and when you bring culture or an artist from a foreign country, because their own cultural landscape is still not functioning well, you can see the happiness in people’s faces and you can see how it helps all ages and it is because the media made it possible for people to listen to these artists before they arrive. They have learnt about them on the radio. Radio has penetrated everywhere; the mobile phone is in the deepest villages. People use mobiles to listen to radio and some have television facilities in them. In the example of Uganda, a country of 37 million people, the mobile phone penetration is 17 million; 15 years ago there were only 46,000 phone lines, fixed lines in the country.”

Through urbanization, Africa has seen a huge development drive across the continent. There has recently been a dramatic growth in urban populations, with more and more people choosing to move to emerging towns and cities rather than remain in their rural locales. As such, this increases the need and demand for information and resources, ensuring a sustained growth in media usage at the moment. The real question is how these sites are moderated to ensure that people discuss progress in a positive and distinctly advantageous manner.

“The problem with social media is that there is a lot coming on the network so interest tends to wane quite fast when something new comes up. But if it is something explosive, like Kony 2012, which is still there, people will forget about it for some time, but the impact will stay. I was here in Salzburg, and I was amazed that a lady who teaches children in a certain school, they had been discussing Kony 2012 last week, so she wanted to ask me to give some more insight into it. Although people may have forgotten about such a campaign on social media, there are those who still take it and use it as a reference point. So I don’t know how people can try to keep ideas on social media networks longer than they are doing, but there is definitely more room for resurgence and doing our best and keeping focus on certain things in the media.”

Kadameri is certainly impressed by the wealth of arts projects that have been started through media interaction. From these small projects, he believes there has been great support that has allowed a fruitful center for post-conflict rehabilitations through various means, whether it is music the breaches borders, arts for those who have seen terrible things, or learning from oral traditions.

“We were using an example of project started by the South Sudanese diaspora with a lady from there who studied law in the UK and went back and set up the Roots of South Sudan project to reconnect the younger and older women with their culture, and started this project that brought different tribes together under one roof. When the recent conflict started, it was one of the few places in South Sudan where nobody was hurt or killed just because they were from a certain tribe.

“It reconnects the South Sudanese community with their culture which they lost over 30 years of war. Many people don’t know what these culture references are. And there is new art and craft. There is a generational divide, but history is a very good therapy in healing a country's image and if you never know this image, you can never move forward in an organized and structured way. So in Rwanda nobody can forget the genocide, in South Sudan nobody will forget the war, nobody will forget Kony in Uganda; everybody in the region has seen some conflict of some sort so they know there is a way society must try to avoid this.”

Kadameri is sure that the arts is something that unites across boundaries. He points to his encounters with the infamous warlord Joseph Kony, who Kadameri has interviewed and met several times, and now plans on writing a book focusing on the acts of Kony’s cult-cum-militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army. For all Kony’s heinous crimes, there is something in culture that speaks to the warlord. “You will find that he himself finds art and culture to be therapeutic. When you talk to those who have been with him in the bush, those who have stayed with him for several years, they say he is in the best mood when people are performing traditional songs for him or when he is listening to music.”

In his work over the past two decades, from meetings with rebel leaders, politicians, heads of state, cultural and civil society leaders and activists to being involved in conflict prevention, mitigation, post-conflict reconstruction and television documentaries, Kadameri always finds a unifying ambition with those whom he comes into contact. No matter the background, communities and governments want to support art and cultural development as a means of reconciling the past and the future, and media is often a springboard to achieve harmony between the two.

“Sometimes you tend to think that where you are coming from has seen most of the conflict, but when you are here you can see that conflict is a global issue. Nature and context may be different but it is important to talk about it because art can play a massive role in conflict. Art can be a trigger of conflict, art can be a mitigating factor in conflict and art is also very good as a kind of therapeutic treatment for people coming out of conflict and it helps people to remember what has happened and try to prevent the bad things that happened from taking place again.”      


Billie Okae Kadameri was a session participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts", which was sponsored by the Edward T Cone Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpage: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/532