In her famous TED talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned viewers of “The Danger of a Single Story.” She tells a poignant story of her experience living with her American college roommate in the United States to illustrate her point:
“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.[…] If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner… 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.”
How can you make sure that you too don’t get trapped in a single story of Africa? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Understand the geography of the African continent.
Africa is bigger than the United States, China, India and all of Europe combined. And yet too often, a negative news story about simply one of Africa’s fifty-four countries ends up negatively affecting the whole continent. For example, a BBC article reported that when the Ebola epidemic hit Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, even countries in sub-Saharan Africa lost tourist revenue: advance bookings for 2015 in Tanzania were 50% lower. Tourists couldn’t understand that cities like Rome and Madrid were closer to the center of the of Ebola outbreak than Tanzania was. Instead they simply assumed that any country in Africa was automatically more dangerous.
2. Acknowledge the successes on the continent, instead of single-mindedly focusing on the negative.
It’s way too simplistic to focus only on the bad news coming out of Africa, particularly when there are plenty of things Africa does better than the States: According to data by the World Bank, Rwanda leads the world in female representation in their government (64% of their government officials are female. In the United States, that number is 18%). Unlike the United States, African countries offer paid maternal leave. Countries like the Central African Republic, Chad, Namibia all also have higher voter turnout rates than we do.
3. Read and watch Western portrayals of the Africa with a critical eye.
As Courtney Martin wrote, “single stories are born, not just from inadequately seeing real people (although that is sometimes the case), but inadequately writing real people — creating caricatures rather than characters.” This happens too often when Westerners attempt to portray African people in their art.
Check out this viral Youtube video made by an organization called Mama Hope, which points out the various stereotypes African men are tired of seeing in Hollywood movies. And check out Binyavanga Wainaina’s video instructing Westerners “How not to write about Africa”:
Keep these videos and idea in mind anytime you’re reading books or watching movies about the continent and its people.
4. Diversify your news sources.
In 2013, the #SomeoneTellCNN controversy in Kenya showed how Western new outlets reporting on Africa can often get the story wrong. Journalists get lazy and write pieces that don’t give the story the actual nuance (or even accuracy) it deserves.
To make sure you’re getting the full context of a story, check out news outlets that actually feature African journalists on the ground. Here are a few: