The Danger of the Single Story

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“Are you kidding me? Africa, is like, the place for bugs and diseases! Everything bad is going on there!” I couldn’t believe my ears. Did she not hear herself speaking? How could she generalize an entire continent filled with over one billion people so easily, and not realize she was doing it? The problem is that it wasn’t just her; it was most people. It was almost everyone I had encountered in America since I had moved back. But then I started to realize, it wasn’t only Americans because I too was guilty of making the same assumptions of people I didn’t know. I started to recognize that we as humans have a tendency to simplify people and summarize who we think they are. We all have the terrible habit of viewing a people through a single story.

You may have heard of TED speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The name might not sound familiar but she is the author of the famous words featured in Beyonce’s Flawless. Chimamanda is an incredible speaker, and she has spoken about Africa and how it is oftentimes viewed through a single lens. The speech is called The Danger of The Single Story. To start out, Chimamanda comments on how “impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” She goes on to talk about her first encounter with her American roommate, “what struck me was this: she had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

First of all, defining an entire continent by one thing is foolish and unfair. I was born in Sub-Saharan Africa in the country of Zimbabwe and grew up in Mozambique. So my stories are very specific to my location, but Africa is a continent with over 53 countries, therefore my stories do not encompass the entirety of Africa. I moved to the United States in 2012 when I started college. Although people were very open to hearing my stories about growing up in Africa, I noticed that oftentimes these individuals already had pre-conceived notions of what the entire continent was like, even though they had never been there. When people asked me questions about my home, I could hear their expectations of how they wanted me to describe Africa. They expected stories of poverty and sadness. Stories of children with swollen bellies, sitting on the dirty streets, begging for food every day. Stories of how it must have been life-changing for me to grow up in a land of such darkness. They were surprised when I told them how great my life was, or when I explained that bugs were actually not as annoying in Mozambique as they were in America which sparked the confrontation I mentioned earlier. Because in what world would something in Africa be better than America? How dare I?

When we are shown “a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Since we are lucky enough to come from a country of major economic power and influence, most people around the world do not have a single story of America. They have multiple stories of us. But that does not give us the right to generalize others and overlook the positive experiences they have to share. In Africa, there are stories of sadness but there are also stories of hope, stories of joy, and stories of love.  Stories like the security guard at one of Mozambique’s airports who always remembered my brothers and me and took extra care of us as we tried to figure out flying internationally all alone because she remembered the time my 12-year-old brother cried because he was leaving home for the first time. Stories of families, who will offer all of their food to you, their guest, even though they have nothing for themselves. Stories of complete strangers on the street going out of their way to help the lost tourist, expecting nothing in return. Stories of the selflessness of the people, who smile in the face of turmoil, who overcome every obstacle they face, and stick together to whatever end. People, whose happiness does not lie in material things, but it is rooted so deep within then that nothing can take it away.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Now this is not to say that Africa does not have problems because it does. There is much poverty, sadness, and need. But when we only focus on that, then all we give is our pity. Of course growing up in Africa I did see children with swollen bellies, I did see poverty and sadness, and I did grow up around many sad realities. But like Chimamanda says, those shouldn’t be the only stories we focus on, “Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.”

Stories matter; every side of the story matters.  It is unfair to those within the story if we pick and choose parts of the story to share. Like Chimamanda said, we cannot make a single story the definitive story of a people. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Lots of people think that they know Africa but they don’t, not my Africa. Not the children with smiles on their faces that sing whenever they want without hesitation, unfazed by who might hear. The community you feel when we are all huddled together for a football match and the celebration when Drogba scores. The laughter, the compassion, the love; these are the things that truly define Africa. The people who do not rely on materialistic things for their happiness. The people who fight every day for those they love with unbreakable spirits, and never do anything half-heartedly. The people who care unreservedly and give graciously even when there is little to give.

Now, I cannot say I am entirely innocent of forming my own single stories. I too have made assumptions and generalizations of people I don’t know, forming a single story for them. But I have decided to try to consciously fight the idea that an entire nation can be defined by one thing.

Ange Kagame, daughter of the current Rwandan president said in an interview that she hopes that, “in this generation’s lifetime we can start to be defined more by our successes than the negative images that have become synonymous with Africa.”

The judgments we form are our responsibility because we are intelligent enough to form our own opinions and discern what is true instead of regurgitating the ideas that are fed to us. We cannot solely blame the TV for belittling a group of people because we believed it without a second thought. Let us challenge ourselves to not be simple-minded and remind ourselves that a single story cannot define the lives of many. Like Chimamanda said, “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

 

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