women from africa

Changing the “Single Story” About Africa(ns) … and Others

by Marsha Rakestraw

Recently I read two books, each featuring a female protagonist.

One was by a black woman from Barbados, the book filled with characters of color living “normal” lives. The other by a white man who wrote about the tragic (and eventually redeemed) life of a young impoverished girl in Mozambique.

Two different books. Two very different stories.

As Westerners, we’re most often exposed to the latter.

When we hear about people living in Africa (which is frequently addressed as a single entity rather than as a diverse conglomeration of more than 50 countries with a multitude of languages, cultures, ecosystems, people and experiences), we usually hear about poverty, violence, health crises, and other challenges.

We get a “single story.”

As author Chimamanda Adichie said of her experience with her college roommate in the U.S., ” 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.”

Below are four videos that can serve as a useful discussion springboard with students and colleagues for rewriting the “single story” that many of us have imbibed about Africa and Africans:

In “How Not to Write About Africa,” (3:16 min) narrated by actor Djimon Hounsou, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina explores stereotypes, generalizations, colonialism, race and privilege, the appropriation of culture, and similar topics.

“African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes” (2:40 min) is a brief PSA highlighting the single story we often see about African men in Western movies.

“Let’s Save Africa! – Gone Wrong” (3:27 min) is a short satirical video highlighting the single story and stereotypes that often appear in international aid fundraising campaigns.

In her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” (19:16 min) author Chimamanda Adichie discusses the danger that when we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

This post is about changing the “single story” about Africa and Africans, but as Adichie mentions in her talk, she grew up hearing a single story about Nigerians, Mexicans, and others.

We often hear a single story about Muslims or politicians or vegans or Westerners or corporate CEOs — or even of our nonhuman cousins.

And, as Adiche says, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

As solutionary educators and ethical global citizens, it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of seeing a single story, whether it’s about an individual, a culture, or an entire species.