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.
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?