Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

Since the Europeans embarked on the colonialist enterprise, culminating with the Scramble for Africa, there has been a single exclusive definition of sub-Saharan Africa and its continent. The Black Africa was considered to be a place of immense riches, vast natural wealth and an uncivilized people that needed to assimilate a monotheistic religion in order to be ‘saved’ (in this case, I am also referring to the spread of Islam southwards onto the Black continent).

This is a stigma that, unfortunately, endured through most of the twentieth century, and is still very present across non-sub-Saharan African minds.

The Scramble for Africa disregarded the multiplicity of different African identities, solely aiming at benefiting European interests. Besides being considerate uncivilized and barbaric, Black Africans were considered not to have any kind of culture. Chinua Achebe, the late famous Nigerian writer, has persistently pointed out that such argument became a tool to justify the European civilizational role in Africa, something which would ‘save’ African souls and improve their livelihoods, bringing them out of a world of ignorance and darkness.

Serious implications derived from this. Look at the case of the Rwandan Genocide: it was thought by the International System, i.e., United Nations, that what was occurring in that small, land-locked, African country, was just one more civil-war, in the same way that many others happened, and where happening, in Africa. In this case, the ‘single story’ of the Black African being ignorant and inferior to the White man, coupled with colonial politics in Rwanda by the Germans and then Belgians, created two different social classes who began attacking each other has soon as Europeans left in the mid-twentieth century. Linked to this is the fact that Rwandans kept with the single story created by the former colonial masters. Rwandans failed to produce a different story of its people, some other story which would portray the culture of its people and its pre-colonial identity.

Unfortunately, this is something which is spread across the continent. From Nigeria, through Congo, all the way to South Africa.

The idea that Africa must behave according to Western (or any other non-African) standards is wrong. It only serves to maintain Africans in obscurity and ignorance.

This is exactly what Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, talks about in her TED Talk, ‘The danger of a single story’. She defines it as: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Going further into the Talk, Chimamanda uses the Igbo word Nkali, which roughly means ‘to be greater than another’, adding that stories too are defined by the principle of Nkali. In other words, “How they (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.”

Quoting a Palestinian author, Chimamanda argues that the best way to dispossess a people is 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 states, and not with the colonial creation of the African State, and you have an entirely different story.”

More awareness must be fomented across Black African populations if they are to be totally emancipated from Western prejudices, and from the single stories that dominate the continent and the minds of its people.


2 thoughts on “Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

  1. RE – Black Africans were considered not to have any kind of culture.
    A few bits of black culture are difficult for westerners to accept as being good although I guess the author feels differently.

    In large areas of east, central & southern Africa albinos have a tough time because the culture teaches that their body parts make strong muti. In South Africa this also applies to infants, kids and adults and seldom causes any concerns among the ruling chiefs.

    The charming custom of killing witches whose age can be anywhere from infancy to dotage is very widespread over much of Africa.

    Need I mention female genital mutilation and virgin rape to cure AIDS.

    The abuse of homosexuals coulf fill several fat books.

    RE – the case of the Rwandan Genocide
    In southern Africa, until the late 1800s, the area was ruled by a series of black chiefs including Shaka, Mozilikaze, Mantatasi, Dingaan etc who were all blood crazed killers who wiped out entire tribes in their quest for the cattle and women belonging to their neighbours. With a score of an estimated 2 – 3 million casualties, these guys make Rwanda look like a picnic.

    In those happy times the value of a woman was measured in terms of a few cows; as it still is today but any white person who criticises these customs is branded a racist.

    In a single generation colonialism gave sub-Saharan Africa an opportunity to escape from thousands of years of stagnation with the introduction of a multitude of beneficial inventions like the wheel, plough, writing and cures for endemic diseases such as malaria, bilharzia, sleeping sickness and dozens of others, plus a life-expectancy three times longer.

    Two thousand years ago Britain was invaded and colonised by the Romans and again, a thousand years later, by the Normans. The same sort of thing happened all over Europe and Asia. Times were tough but the inhabitants learned, benefited, progressed and moved on.

    Africans seem incapable of doing any more that whining about the evils they suffered instead of recognising that there were some benefits that they could learn from.


    • Brian I do not deny that the West transferred a significant amount of skills, expertise and technics to Africa. It has indeed improved the lifes of millions. However, the point of my article is to higlight African culture, and not overshadow it. Isn’t cultural identity fulcral for the health of a nation, or region? It is! And we can see it in the West.

      Europe also had its dark moments. It was not that long ago that millions died – let’s just go back 100 years ago. What about the witch-hunt in Europe during the middle ages? What about the deadly wars between European states? We had all of it. And Western culture was largely built upon it.

      In the same way, African culture must be built upon their disasters (as well as upon its happy moments). Without the rise of African culture, the single story will be constantly upheld. The single story of a backward country, with non-existent culture and rich traditions. This must be changed in order for Africa to rise and evolve.

      African can benefit from Western influence. Not in an integral way, but in an adaptable way. We cannot expect African countries to develop western style liberal democracies. It is impossible. Western development went through centuries of wars and social and political thought.


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