Message from the Founder

The first identities I embraced were that I am female and Nigerian. I thought the world round, and in black and white. I later realized that although I was Nigerian, I also was African, Black and a citizen of the world. Then, my little brain absorbed information about where I was from. I learned that the world was a little bigger than the four corners my mind had conjured. With this knowledge arose the desire to explore, to conquer and to make a difference. With my desires came my mistaken idea that the world was a little better, that the mistakes of the past had been learnt from, and no one is inclined to repeat those actions. Somehow, I had thought that the world was quite knowledgeable about Nigeria, and most especially Africa, in the same way I was holistic about my regard for the rest of the world. But alas, this is not true; my thoughts were just childish hopes.

The first time I realized that although the world was in the 21st century, people regarded Africa as still centuries in the past, I felt deeply sad. Many still see Africa as a backward place where young children run around naked around the village square, a place of tribal leaders and moonlight stories, and a secure place with communal living — basically people still think of Africa in the way the Europeans who exploited and explored Africa perceived it. Heart wrenching is the fact of how far from reality those depictions actually are. For example, Hollywood taught me the idea of African chanting. I have never and probably never will see an African chant, except in movies. The western world has a limited and stiff idea of Africa, which is used as the measuring rod for authenticity. I wondered why there is the need for such a badge on Africans, since they were not necessarily true. So my realization of a problem developed, my desire for a change was ignited, but my involvement in such a movement diminished. I devalued what my mind could wrought, and deferred on the little I possibly could do. In my defense, I am but a child, what possibly can I bring to the plate? At least, so I thought.

My first year in college, I realized that I was a natural change agent, that I didn’t need to change the world as a whole, I just needed to change myself first, then the few people around me, and my little action would cause a ripple through the world. But the first time I got punched in the gut about Africa’s issues was the day I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s Tedtalk. For the first time, it seemed my thoughts, feelings, emotions had been given a human body. They could finally express themselves. It was my story being told, my experience being narrated. I was Adichie, and she was me. Chimamanda Adichie is a renowned Nigerian author who divides her time between Nigeria, where she regularly teaches writing workshops, and the United States (“The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website.”). She, in her speech, talks about the danger of a “Single Story” which creates a critical misunderstanding. She defines a Single Story as the continual portrayal of a people as one thing over and over again which creates the stereotype they become. She similarly states that

“single stories are linked with power. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali, an Igbo word that loosely translates to one who is greater than another. How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

Also including words of a famous Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, Adiche stresses that

“if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” (Adiche)

In this article, I will be telling you about the single story of Africa as portrayed by the western media, and my concern with the stereotypical image of Africa. Africa, for many, is seen in a negative light: poverty, illness, hunger and HIV/AIDS. Others see Africa as an exotic continent with animals and Sahara, perfect for exploring.  There is nothing actually wrong with these images, as they categorize some part of Africa. However, the danger and sad part is that, these images are the only aspect known and shown about Africa. Africa for ages has been told in a single way, with a Single Story. And the other neglected part is actually the core of what Africa is, while the single story impedes the development of the other side of Africa.

In, April 2012, I conducted an online survey to learn about Americans view about Africa.  53 people took the survey. Asked about things they associate Africa with:

  • 47 people wrote Poverty
  • 41 picked amazing animals and HIV/AIDS
  • 39 people marked Africa as a place filled with hungry people
  • 29 people thought that Africa had beautiful scenery
  • 27 thought the continent corrupt; 26 people thought of the continent as a place with endless safari’s and desert land
  • 22 people thought it had diverse culture and is extremely rural in development and its environs.

However, only 7 people out of the 53 who took my survey knew that Africa had rich countries. On its own, are these results sad? Maybe not; but the answer to my next question is. I asked what their first impression of Africa was; many wrote the above issues including slavery, Libya and famine, jungle, poor people, war, lions standing on white sanded beaches in the sunlight, genocide, darkness, and amazingly someone wrote the movie Blood Diamond. The last answer bought a smile to my face, because it sums up all the other answers. People get their assumption and characterization of Africa from movies, documentaries and news from other parts of the world.

Olayinka .A. Egbokhare is a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Department of Communication and Language Arts, Nigeria, and presently, a visiting scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Georgia, USA.  In my interview with her, Egbokhare tackles the issue of the western media’s under-reporting and negative broadcast of Africa. She says that although these reports are based on real events, they are however given from a lopsided point of view. Effects are reported without causes, problems without solutions. Sometimes, the story focuses on one African country, but is passed off as the whole continent. Little wonder, on a recent visit of hers to America, someone had requested Egbokhare, after understanding that she was from Nigeria, to pass some message across to her friend in Liberia. The woman had behaved as if Liberia was a town, or at best a state in Nigeria. In Egbokhare’s opinion and countless others,

“it suits the western world to misrepresent Africa in the news so that they can keep justifying their big brother stance in the world arena. When crises are reported, such crises are made to look like single events that are unrelated to our colonial past and the political rape of the continent. Whereas, in actual fact, many of our crises are resultant effects of the processes that brought us to our present state of affairs. The western media are out of touch with reality and would report whatever news they might find, not caring whether they underplay the efforts of the African people and our leaders. Many reporters in their ignorance still feel an obligation to perpetrate the historical notion of Africa being a dark continent that is backward and inhabited by savages living on trees and feeding on human blood–cruel natives who go about scantily dressed. Many of us who grew up in Africa are yet to even come in contact with such barbaric communities that behave like direct descendants of the ape. For example, look at films like AvatarComing to America, and District 9; what messages are still being preached about Africa and Africans? As a result of this negative exposure, both reporters and readers have scant knowledge of the history and geography of Africa.” (Egbokhare)

Having a single story is like viewing an image from only one perspective/mirror. This usually brings about misinformation and errors in judgment which is a source of major conflicts and wars. The danger of a single story is not in the story itself; it is the limitation that accompanies such story, the fact that one part of a story is used to categorize the whole of a thing, person, place or idea. And as Adichie says,

“a single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story the single story. Of course Africa is a continent full of catastrophes, but there are other stories that are not about catastrophes. And, they are equally important as well. The consequence of a single story is that it robs people of dignity; it emphasizes how we are different instead of how we are similar.”

Perhaps, the only way to go about changing the single story of Africa is Africans telling their own story, telling it well and telling it fast. But, I wonder, how we go about it. However, I can say this clearly: there are enough trained African journalists on the continent that can do investigative reports and counter this one-sided report on Africa. Perhaps, Africans need to stop depending solely on western news agencies to tell our story. If the western media seem to be socialized to focus on negative news, then our own news agencies should focus on non-disruptive news. But this is presently being done all over the continent; African stories are being reported by Africans, yet this aspect has never circulated to the mainstream media. The problem is not Africans telling their stories; it is the fact that the projected audience does not know such reports exist. For example, although Nollywood is “currently the second largest film industry in the world in terms of number of annual film productions, placing it ahead of the United States and behind the Indian film industry,” many Americans still do not recognize its existence (“Cinema of Nigeria”).

Stephen Okukuseku Dankyi, the current president of African Student Association in USF and a Ghanaian by nationality, observes that most Americans are more focused on America than other countries, and do not really learn enough about  the world as a whole. He points out that Africa is not the only place affected by ignorance of the populace. I must say, that I totally agree with Dankyi but I dare say that the culture is mostly found in teenagers and young individuals. It is not surprising that 81.7% of my participants are between the ages of 16 and 23. This age bracket is important since they are the conductors of tomorrow’s story. And it is quite sad that their ignorance would be passed to the next generation unknowingly. Dankyi also points out that although we, as Africans, cannot go to war with the media, we can change the mindset of people who interact with such news. We can let people know about Africa through events and seminars where African issues are discussed, Africa’s diversity is shown, its culture displayed, giving equal attention to both the negative and positive light of the continent. However, we can only take little steps at a time. If one person is impacted, it is better than educating no people at all. This should be the starting point. It might not make a great impact at the beginning. But then, every great thing starts little.

The effect of what a little added knowledge can produce could be seen with the results of my survey. After asking about the participants’ views about Africa in general, I requested that each participant watch two videos,  the “the Africa they never show you” Youtube video showcasing how similar diverse cities in Africa are to the western world, and Chimamanda Adiche’s “single story” speech at the Ted Conference. After watching both videos, the participants had interesting things to say about what they had just seen, and a completely different perspective on their views of Africa. Responses include:

  • “TV and media really subsidize culture into one image; the videos were interesting”
  • “Africa is a very beautiful continent with very diverse people and culture. Adichie said it all…we should all be mindful of the ‘single story’”
  • “I feel that Africa is different from what I thought. I felt that it was filled with poverty and bad things happen all the time but I was wrong. It was more Western-like than I thought. I am very surprised; it gives me a bigger- better outlook on Africa, more positive”
  • “Illuminated. They were beautiful and informative videos”
  • “WOW. I am really surprised. I honestly feel ashamed for believing the single story of Africa. I am Mexican and I haven’t been there in 12 years and I too have fallen to believe the single story for Mexicans”
  • “I would have never expected to see cities like those in the video in Africa; Africa is a great continent no doubt”
  • “great to know that Adichie has shown the world some parts of Africa speak English too”
  • “très bon”
  • “I think that the media should try to show more of this side of African life, rather than focusing entirely on the small, rural villages. Seeing this side of Africa may encourage more tourism and enhance the African economy”
  • “I feel slightly enlightened, I learned some things I was not aware of but for the most part I felt like it was pretty accurate”
  • “I was very enlightened”
  • “I think that America (if not other various European countries) warps the truth to get the public’s attention. I think the speech was especially interesting”
  • “the first video completely surprised and shocked me. I had NO IDEA there were such highly developed…all out advanced…cities and beautiful, expensive architecture, etc. Second video: I related a lot to the speaker, and did not find it so surprising, especially after seeing the first video”
  • “I watched half of the first one and I was very surprised. I knew South Africa was pretty big, but didn’t really know the rest were too”
  • “why do they never show this side of Africa?”

Judging from the reaction of the two videos, it is obvious that a little action does help, and it definitely goes a long way in creating a change. Due to this project, there are 53 more people enlightened a little about Africa. I hope that they develop a hunger to learn more about the continent. But even if they do not follow-up on what they just learnt, at least every time the name Africa pops up, they do not think of ruralized areas, but of countries also developing. I might not have changed the world, but I feel a sense of accomplishment in my survey results; it motivates me to push the boundaries further, to tell my African story a little longer. But, Rome they say was not built in a day. I would like to end with Chimamanda Adichie’s words: “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” I long for that paradise, and I would strive for that utopia.

 

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Dangers of a Single Story.” Address. TED Global 2009. England, Oxford City. 27 Oct. 2009. www.ted.com. Ted Conference, LLC, Oct. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. <http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html>.
“Cinema of Nigeria.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 09 Mar. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Nigeria>.
Dankyi, Stephen Okukuseku. Personal interview. 14 Apr. 2011.
Egbokhare, Olayinka A. “Issues about Western Media’s under-reporting of Africa and Actions That Can Be Taken thereof.” E-mail interview. 11 Apr. 2011.
“The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website.” www.l3.ulg.ac.be. Liège Language and Literature L3, 15 Oct. 2004. Web. 01 Apr. 2011. <http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/index.html>.
YouTube – (My Love & Pride) The Africa They Never Show You. Adapt. Loaki00. YouTube. Google Inc., 13 Aug. 2009. Web. 01 Apr. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=826tpNNrCF0>.