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From Columbus to Kony: Old Tropes in a New Era

Judge Magazine 1899.

Written by Stephanie Vizi (Bachelor of Journalism Student).

Nominated by Professor A. Diptee.

Action on social media is often driven by the inclination to express a flattering view of oneself. Kony 2012, a humanitarian campaign launched on social media, allowed its viewers to do just that. Viewers were led to believe that solving over 25 years of civil war in Uganda was simply a click away …

Invisible Children, an American NGO, created Kony 2012  in efforts to capture the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. Holding him accountable for the mutilation, raping and kidnapping of thousands of Ugandans, by the campaign’s expiry date, December 31, 2012, Kony 2012 received over 112 million views on YouTube and Vimeo, making it one of the most-watched and influential videos of all time (Bal, Archer-Brown, Robson & Hall, 2013).  There is no question that it went viral. Unfortunately, the campaign failed to reach its stated goals and bring about the capture of the now infamous, Joseph Kony (202).

Kony 2012 hurt Ugandans more than it helped.  The campaign reinforced a problematic dichotomy between the Western world and the continent of Africa.  The campaign’s narrative relied on an age old stereotype and seemed reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s notion of “The White Man’s Burden” i.e. it is the  role of whites to go forth as saviour to bring wisdom and help to non-whites (in this case African). The Kony 2012 “single story”, a term popularized by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, was imprinted onto the consciousness of a primarily young and well-meaning audience – with great cost to those on the front lines of the Joseph Kony issue.

The West has an established tradition of categorizing Africans as either starving vulnerable children or savage raging warlords. Both of these tropes imply the need for Western intervention to fill the role of the white Christian saviour (Nothias, 2013, 125). This method of othering non-whites has persisted since the Age of Discovery and is reproduced in Kony 2012. Early European explorers set out to find a route to the Orient.  Instead they stumbled upon the Americas and encountered the indigenous people who lived there.  They described the indigenous inhabitants they encountered using either of the two aforementioned tropes. In his writing about the inhabitants he encounters, Christopher Columbus writes “At every point where I landed, and succeeded in talking to them, I gave them some of everything I had – cloth and many other things – without receiving anything in return, but they are a hopelessly timid people,” (Columbus, 1493). Columbus paints the native people as timid, vulnerable and childlike. This trope is mirrored in Kony 2012. 

Jason Russell, the creative director of Invisible Children (IC) met Jacob, a Northern Ugandan boy, “running for his life” from the LRA, over nine years ago (Kony 2012). Russell narrates, while the camera pans across children packed like sardines, sleeping in empty buildings to avoid abduction by the LRA, “This has been going on for years? If that happened for one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek!”

Jacob tells Russell that he would rather die than live under LRA oppression and Russell informs the viewer that “Everything in my heart told me to do something and so I made him a promise.” Jacob is depicted as a poor, vulnerable victim of the LRA that Russell happened to stumble upon. Russell makes it clear that he has decided to make it his job to save the people of Uganda from the atrocities of Joseph Kony and the LRA.  Similarly, Columbus writes that he selflessly provided the natives with resources “to win their love, and to induce them to become Christians and serve their Highnesses”(Columbus).  Imbedded in this is the assumption that Columbus is superior, in terms of race, religion, and culture, and therefore is called to convert, save, teach, and colonize the native masses.  He can show them the way …

Kony 2012, portrays Russell as the [white] saviour of the African child soldiers, and Joseph Kony, a manipulative, savage, African warlord, “For 26 years, Kony has been kidnapping children into his rebel group the LRA, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers, he makes them mutilate people’s faces and he forces them to kill their own parents.”  Joseph Kony has, of course, committed many atrocities. That much is undeniable.  But, the alternative trope to the suffering African child is to view the African as a barbaric savage.  This replaces a more complex analysis that requires historical context and a nuanced explanation.

In a trope that parallels those used by Columbus and the many colonizers who have followed him, the Kony 2012 campaign offers a simplistic view of African people.  In Columbus’s letter, for example, he describes a group of native inhabitants as savage when he wrote “As for monsters, I have not found not a trace of them except at the point in the second isle as one enters the Indies, which is inhabited by a people considered in all the isles as most ferocious, who eat human flesh. They possess many canoes, with which they overrun all the isle of India, stealing and seizing all they can,” (Columbus).  The Kony 2012 campaign relies heavily on tropes such as these.

Kony 2012 suggests that the solution to Uganda’s problems is to make Joseph Kony famous, which will result in continued American military presence in Central Africa, and eventually the capture of Joseph Kony.  This oversimplified solution to a complicated civil war, aims to empower young people to make a difference by “making Kony famous.”  Amy Finnegan (2013) argues, however, that this form of activism has grave implications, and these include “misinformed policy and lost opportunities for more comprehensive and ultimately efficacious activism” (137). The Kony 2012 campaign, proposed a solution that ultimately hurt Ugandans more than it helped.  Not only did it perpetuate the Western perspective of Africans as either vulnerable children or savage warlords in need of a Western savior, but as Finnegan makes clear an opportunity has been lost for more realistic policy solutions and more effective activist efforts.

Bal, A. S., Archer-Brown, C., Robson, K., and Hall, D.E. (2013). Do good, goes bad, gets ugly: Kony 2012. Journal of Public Affairs, 13, 202-208. doi: 10.1002/pa.1475.

Columbus, Christopher. (1493). The Letter of Columbus to Luis De Sant Angel Announcing His Discovery. Retrieved from:

Finnegan, Amy C. (2013). Beneath Kony 2012: Americans Aligning with Arms and Aiding.

Others. Africa Today, 59, 136-162. Retrieved from:

Nothias, Toussaint. (2013). ‘It’s struck a chord we have never managed to strike.’: Frames, perspectives and remediation strategies in thew international news coverage of Kony2012. African Journalism Studies, 34, 123-129.

1 Comment on From Columbus to Kony: Old Tropes in a New Era

  1. Reblogged this on Postcards from Lesotho and commented:
    An article I wrote in my undergrad, still rings true in some Western Media coverage of Africa and Africans.

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