Chimamanda Adichie’s talk “The danger of a single story” tells the riveting tale of Adichie’s experience as a Nigerian interacting with Western cultures for the first time within a university setting. Adichie quickly discovers that the Britain she read about in her storybooks is far removed from the reality of the United Kingdom. Equally, Adichie finds that her Western peers are unable to relate to her and expect her to follow the stereotypes of Africans that they had internalised from films and books. Adichie’s central message is that listening to only a “single story” entrenches stereotypes and prevents us from truly understanding each other.
Here are just a couple of stereotypes I have come across, which were challenged by my experiences living in Ghana.
Africa is poor
We are regularly exposed to media representations of starving Africans surrounded by flies. There is a lot of poverty in Africa but these images tell only a single story. First, Africa is not a country. Africa is made up of 54 sovereign states with distinct cultures, traditions, and languages. Second, not everyone in Africa is poor. The World Bank ranks the GDP of Egypt higher than the GDP of Ireland. Kenya’s GDP was ranked above the GDP of European nations Latvia and Estonia. Kenya also has a range of Commercial and Investment Banks and highly developed infrastructure. There are gourmet French restaurants in Ghana, Rwanda, Togo, and Benin and snappy sushi restaurants dot the continent.
My argument is not that all of Africa has the glamour of Central London but that there are pockets of wealth across the continent. Wealth from natural resources, better governance, African entrepreneurism, investment and aid from developed countries has helped to improve the situation for many and create opportunities for prosperity.
As a result many cities are no longer, or less, reliant on aid. To say that Africa is poor is to ignore the diversity, progress, and opportunities within this continent.
They love it when you take photos of their children!
The media would have you believe that no trip to Africa is complete without a safari, a blog post highlighting your selflessness and some photos with naked African babies. When we get shutter-happy we start to objectify the lives of others. A good friend of mine from Rwanda explains that when Westerners come and take photos of children in her school they feel that the photos will be sold to magazines for money. She wondered out loud to me why so many Westerners want photos of children whose names they do not know?
Africa shouldn’t be treated as a human zoo. Many countries, like the United States, have regulations in place that prohibit photographing children without the consent of their parents. Why is it then that we are so quick to take snaps of kids we find on the streets? Think of how strange it would be if you started taking photos of people coming out of the train station. Why should it be any different in Africa? Get to know the kids, build a relationship, and then consider taking out your camera.
Africa is an incredible continent full of interesting traditions, music, and people. It is critical for everyone to move past the stereotypes ingrained in us by the media and begin to engage with each other on a deeper level. Only when we stop to listen to the voices of Africans themselves will we truly understand Africa and how best to work with Africans to eradicate extreme poverty.
Image one: Building in Sandton, South Africa by Kleinz1