I bet you thought the title didn’t quite match the cover image of the (American?) skyline? It’s actually one of Africa’s many great skylines. This particular one is Nairobi, Kenya.
I am doing an online course on sustainable development, with a focus on Africa. It’s an interesting course taught by academia, UN employees, members of parliaments and even a former Nigerian president. We read essays, watch films, interviews and hold online discussions.
Today I watched a TEDtalk held by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Nigerian writer and storyteller who has written novels such as Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun and has given TEDtalks which leave you in awe and full of inspiration.
The danger of a single story
In her presentation of “The Danger of a Single Story”, she manages to perfectly describe the reason why I started TheGoodStory. The power of the stories we hear is immense. It shapes our perception of situations, people and countries. You can imagine that only hearing negative stories about a person or situation will leave you with a grim judgment of reality. It might even cause you to forget that there are always more sides than one to every story. It just doesn’t sound logical to form any opinion after only hearing one-sided stories. Still, it happens every day. Bad news is often considered more newsworthy than good news and charities and aid organizations benefit by sharing sad stereotypical stories in order to raise more funds.
When half-truths form our perceptions
After living in Kenya for a while, I could fill a book full of examples of surprised reactions from people when I would tell them about ‘Starbucks-like’ coffee places, IMAX movie theaters, gourmet restaurants, and highway flyovers. Those things don’t exist in Africa do they? Africa (as if it is one country), is full of clay huts, flies and underweight children. It takes a lot of convincing that UNICEF ads and reality are not always the same thing. Of course, there are harsh realities in Africa, famine, poverty, corruption and so on. But keep in mind that the African continent is big enough to shelter half of Europe, the United States, India and China, maybe then you will understand that it would be impossible for all that land to look like a UNICEF commercial.
I can’t help finding myself struck by people’s ignorant approach to Africa as a country rather than a continent. When I was in Kenya, I would receive a concerned email at least once a month. Usually resulting from something that happened somewhere else on the African continent. The start of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, an attack in Mogadishu, etc. Many would consider that a realistic reason to be worried. Ebola spread like wildfire and living in a country neighboring such horrific attacks as occur in Mogadishu must be dangerous. But now consider this. The distance between Guinea and Kenya is 5387 km. That is more than the distance between the United Kingdom and Guinea, which is 5087 km. But I bet that nobody in the United Kingdom received worried emails about their safety after the Ebola outbreak. The same goes for the distance between Mogadishu and Nakuru (where I was staying). The distance between those cities is roughly the same as the distance between Amsterdam and Florence (Firenze).
Of course, these worries were meant well but the mere fact that most people don’t seem to think of these worries as slightly ridiculous shows us that many people think of Africa as a far more grim place than it really is. The negative stories have formed our perception of Africa being a poor, hopeless and even dangerous place. When in reality there is no place on earth with more potential, hope and resiliency.
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.
I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Europe vs. Africa
But, this perception of Africa as one nation also has its benefits. As a European citizen, I think we can learn a great deal from that perception. Although I believe it is a bad thing when outsiders see Africa as one country resulting from a neglect to educate themselves on what Africa really is, I think it can be a good thing when the perception of one nation comes from the actual people of Africa. I have never experienced a stronger feeling of being ONE than I have while in Kenya. A victory on the continent of Africa is considered to be a victory for all Africans. Literally, such as during the world cup, when a team from any African country would perform well people would go out on the streets and celebrate ‘our win’. I can’t imagine people in my home country the Netherlands going out on the streets to celebrate a football/soccer victory of Germany or Spain. Although Europe claims to be one, we feel nowhere near as connected as the people who live in Africa do. Which is quite an accomplishment when you consider that Europe can easily be fitted in Africa 6 times (Africa being 30,3 million km² and Western-Europe 4,9 million km² in size) and with a population a little under double the amount of that of Europe. If if the inhabitants of Europe could feel as much European and the inhabitants of Africa feel African, it could truly become the strong ‘we stand as one’ continent it set out to be.
Also check out the world’s report card and see how well it scored on global development
Three questions for you
After watching the video, as shown above, the course lecturer asked me three questions. I am curious about what your answers to these questions are. Don’t feel shy!
- Can you share any examples of when you made assumptions about people from another culture as Chimamanda did in the film?
- Where did these assumptions come from?
- How did they influence your perceptions of the individual?
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Oh. My. God.
I don’t know what I feel more right now – guilt or shame. I am one of those ignorant fools who stereotyped Africa like many others. Thank you so much for having shared this. I shall never judge anybody or anything based on a single story ever again.
To answer your questions..
1. I have always stereotyped the Africans and the Chinese. The Africans as poor, uneducated, starved, subjected to inhuman acts, devoid of any technology and highly unlikely to make any kind of socio-economic progress. The Chinese as being shrewd politicians, the nation that is strongly against imparting English language education, a population of working class people who eat snakes and worms – the list goes on.
2. I gathered as much during my schooling in addition to the stereotypes that society imprints on your mind. May be if I had bothered to read up on Africa, I wouldn’t feel as ignorant as I do right now.
3. I believed people from these countries HAD to be just like the images of stereotypes described to me. If they were any different, I would start thinking of them revolutionary or even as “coming out from under the rock”, if I may daresay.
Once again thank you for sharing!
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Thank you so much for your reply. It’s so great to receive such a well-considered reply. But don’t feel guilty. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are often the stories shared on the day to day media. I remember when I first went to Kenya (and knew nothing about Kenya yet) I packed many many batteries… thinking I would be unable to buy them there. Looking back at it now it seems ridiculous. Not only because I have no clue why I thought I needed so many batteries but also because I visited one of the biggest supermarkets I have ever seen on my first day in Nairobi. They sold everything! Including batteries 😉
I don’t think it is necessarily bad to not know so much about a specific place but it is good to be aware of the fact that you don’t know.. So when the time comes that you need to form an opinion on something.. you know that you are uninformed instead of simply falling back on that single story.
Thanks for the reblog! Let’s hope we can provide people with a few more stories 😉
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Reblogged this on Worldly Words and commented:
“The consequence of a single story is this – it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of an equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
You have to read this post. It is an eye opener if it’s anything. If it doesn’t leave you feeling guilty or ignorant, it will atleast leave you feeling wiser.
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Wow! Fantastic article, interesting at so many levels. Thank you for the introduction to the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and for sharing her amazing TEDtalk 🙂 It really struck me how she described herself as middle class but then later describes during her upbringing her parents salaries being withheld by government and basic food suddenly ‘disappearing’ ie becoming unavailable -jam, butter, then bread’s really expensive and milk is rationed. That really challenged my assumptions of what it might mean to be middle class in an African country. Since whenever as a child I learnt that Africa was a continent I don’t think I ever confused it as being a country but I do think that when things like the Ethopian famine appeals were being continually shown on television while I was quite young that I somehow assimilated a blanket view of poverty and starvation – even though I was aware of many different national territories within the continent of Africa. I’ll have to watch this again and maybe I’ll return to your questions another time 🙂
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such enthusiasm:) thank you! She truly is an inspiring personality isn’t she! If you are interested, also check out her Ted talk on feminism. I’ve posted it under Be Inspired: gender equality. Also a great one!
I understand your thoughts and maybe confusion about the definition of middle class. I think words carry different weight in different places. For example the definition of poor will be very different in, for example, the U.K. Than it would be in Nigeria. I think (based on Kenya) that middle class can mean having a steady income, the ability to rent a house, send your kids to school and buy food. But even then.. Payments of salary might not be as constant as in other countries. Also.. As I understood it from her talk the reason for their vanishing foods was that her parents were teachers and the government did not support free education.. Sounds like they were trying to discourage teachers.. But maybe I’m wrong 😉 just thinking out loud.
Am looking forward to your answers 🙂
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