What comes to mind when you hear the word Africa?
For many people, what immediately comes to mind is a place of catastrophe. They think of a place that is slowly sinking in a web of corruption, poverty, and terrible illnesses. In the socio-economic terms, a lot of people picture a place of fantastic landscapes but sadly too entangled in tribal clashes and meaningless wars. Still, others think of it as a jungle, a place where people live in huts and cross paths with lions and elephants.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls that the single story of Africa. On a TEDx stage, the acclaimed Nigerian author goes on to explain the dangers of the single story, giving an account of her life as a perfect example of why the single story has flawed people’s image of Africa.
Her Roots in Nigeria
Chimamanda was born in Nigeria in 1977.
Although she was not born into affluence, Chimamanda was born into a much more privileged family than most other kids in Nigeria at the time. Both of her parents worked at the University of Nigeria, with her mother working as an administrator and her father working as a professor.
Flawed Story About Books
Chimamanda was an early reader. Her mother said she started reading novels at the age of two, though according to Chimamanda, four is probably more realistic.
By the age of seven, the little girl was writing her own work in pencil with crayon illustrations. But she wrote exactly the sort of stories she was reading. All her characters were white and blue-eyed. They ate apples, played in the snow, and talked a lot about the weather – how lovely it was that the sun had come out.
That was despite the fact that Chimamanda had never been outside Nigeria. They ate mangoes, and not apples, never had snow, and never talked about the weather as there was no need to.
Chimamanda explains that she had been introduced to the single story of literature. Books had to have foreigners in them and had to be talking about things she couldn’t personally identify with.
There weren’t many African books available and again, African books weren’t as easy to find as the foreign ones due to discriminative marketing.
Still, before the age of ten, Chimamanda was able to discover the African books. Because of African writers like Chinua Achebe, she went through a mental shift in her perception of literature. It struck her that girls like her whose kinky hair could not form ponytails and whose skin color looked like chocolate could also exist in literature.
Chimamanda loved the foreign books as they stirred her imagination and opened up new worlds to her, but she couldn’t help noting the unintended result. She realized that these books had brought her into the falsehood that people like her could not exist in literature.
Her discovery of African books saved Chimamanda from having the single story of what books were meant to be.
Fide and His Family
When Chimamanda turned eight, her family got a new houseboy, whose name was Fide. When Chimamanda asked her mother who Fide was, she pitiably said that his family was very poor. Chimamanda’s family would thereafter send food and clothing to Fide’s family. Whenever Chimamanda and her siblings would fail to finish their meals at the dinner table, their mother would scold them saying, “Finish your meals! Don’t you know people like Fide’s family have nothing?”.
As a result, Chimamanda felt massive pity for Fide and his family.
Then, on one weekend. Chimamanda and her family went to visit Fide’s family. When they got there, Fide’s mother showed them a beautiful basked that Fide’s brother had made. It was nicely patterned and made of dyed raffia.
Upon seeing it, Chimamanda was astonished. She had never imagined that that somebody from Fide’s family could actually make something.
All she had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for her to think of them as anything else but poor. Their misery was her single story of them.
The American Roommate
Years later, when Chimamanda was 19, she left Nigeria to attend college in the US.
Her American roommate was shocked by her.
“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” she queried.
What she did not know is that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language.
Later, the roommate asked Chimamanda if she could listen to her “tribal music”. Again, she was startled when Chimamanda produced her Mariah Carey mixtape.
On another instance, the roommate was surprised to see that Chimamanda knew how to use a stove better than her. She had previously imagined Chimamanda had never even seen a stove before.
Amazingly, the American roommate had made judgements and felt sorry for Chimamanda even before she met her. Her default position toward Chimamanda was the kind patronizing, well-meant pity.
She had bought into the single story of Africa, a single story of disaster. In the story, there wasn’t a chance that Africans could be similar to her in any way. There was no possibility of a connection with Africans as human equals.
Identifying As African
Chimamanda had not consciously identified as African before going to US. She was, in fact, surprised to see people turn toward her whenever places like Namibia were mentioned, even though she had never been there. One day, she felt some mild irritation when an announcement was made on a Virgin flight about their works in “India, Africa, and other countries,”, considering Africa is not a country but rather a continent.
Today, however, Chimamanda identifies herself as African. She continues to write, and has produced great works such as Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. In 2008, Chimamanda got the MacArthur Genius Grant for her exemplary contribution to the literary world. Apart from writing, this beautiful lady issues lectures and champions the rights of women in Africa and beyond.