Avoiding the single story

“… that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
TED Talk, Oct 2009, The danger of a single story

One thing that always blew my mind when talking with friends or fellow students or co-workers about the many different places in the world, is that more often than not, Africa would be referred to as a country – not a continent. Sure, some may shrug it off as a slip of the tongue, but in the majority of these cases, people don’t even realize their mistake. Africa… it’s difficult for most people to differentiate between the countries and cultures of this diverse continent. Certain images come to mind, certain stereotypes, and certain judgments. For many, Africa, as a whole, has a single story.

More from Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk:

“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.”

Many people have these same perceptions of Africa. Over and over again they see the places and people of Africa represented in one way, and that is what Africa becomes to them. But just like every state, every county of every state, every city and every town in America, there are vastly different cultures and vastly different people in every country, every region, every city, every village in Africa. And while it can be so very overwhelming to attempt to wrap our heads around the scale of the world in which we live, it is critical to at least recognize that every group of people can be so very and beautifully different. And we must also understand that we shouldn’t base our judgments and opinions just on appearances – we cannot assume we know a people based on a single image of them, on their single story.

One frequent concern of many Americans when they think of “AFRICA” is the state of Africa’s children – so dirty, dressed in rags, underfed and malnourished, sad, in need of a better home, a better life, etc… Yes, compared to America, life can be a bit more of a struggle here in many parts of Africa. If a family relies on subsistence agriculture for example, their life will be extremely different from the classic suburban middle class living in upstate New York. But just because their life is different, doesn’t mean we need to save them from it.

Sure, when there are droughts or floods, or other natural disasters that leave families without a good harvest, and therefore without enough food, aid may be necessary – “saving” may be necessary. But who are we to assume unhappiness because the image of a child from some region, some country in Africa shows a bit of dirt and torn clothing. The children I interact with on a normal basis here in TZ are just like any you may meet in America – simply in a very different context. And just because it is a different context doesn’t mean these kids need saving.

Take a look at some of the children I’ve had the pleasure of knowing during my time here in TZ. They’re just as goofy, as happy, and as smiley as any other. I suppose we could say that there is for the most part a single and universal story for kids: they just wanna have fun…


This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story.

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