Saturday, 9 April 2011

Africa and the single narrative

I've been trying to read a horrid little book (well not so little but very horrid) that was recommended by a colleague of mine as a background to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The book, Blood River by English journalist, Tim Butcher is peppered with racist stereotypes about Africa and its people and is evidence of a lack of understanding or perhaps desire to understand the problems that plague the DRC. His account is superficial at best but if I'm honest I would say shallow and racist with comments referring to 'the natives and their kalashnikovs', depictions of the 'emotionless' corrupt Government minister, and references to the 'dark continent', its 'dark past', 'dark present' etc etc. The book offers no hope, no depth and clearly no understanding and what makes it infuriating is that rather than telling 'his version' of a story, Tim Butcher seems to be offering up a so-called factual account of what he describes as 'the World's most dangerous country' with over-simplistic and inaccurate pronouncements including one about Tutsis being taller and thinner and having finer features than their ethnic neighbours. The irony of it all is that Butcher's journey which culminates in the writing of this book was a mere 45 days long, aided by the UN and various NGOs and a lot of money and by his own admission he lacked skills in the languages spoken by the so-called 'natives' whether French, Lingala or Swahili. Yet the book was well received and received high praise for giving 'A fascinating insight into Belgian colonial history and Congo today'. Reading this book, or attempting to, reminded me of a confrontation I once had with Rod Liddle, another English journalist who having spent two weeks in Uganda, returned to the UK to write some ridiculously inaccurate and damning account of the country, its people and its problems, all summarised in less than 2000 words.

This simplistic approach to a hugely diverse and complex continent seems to follow the style of colonial accounts of the 'dark continent' and its population who were summed up as either docile or savage, but always primitive . Although the modern narrative is less openly racist, the suggestion that you can sum up a country, however small with one account and especially when you have no real grasp or understanding of its cultural or social dynamics is no different from what European 'explorers' and colonisers were doing when they reported on Africa.

I recently watched a film called Kinshasa Symphony about a symphony orchestra in the DRC's capital and beyond the poverty what I saw were hard working, incredibly resourceful people who had developed a passion for classical music and who were striving every day to make their lives better. It was a simple story yet one that we never seem to hear when we see or read accounts of Africa.

The vey talented, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a talk two years ago on the danger of the single story, in it she eloquently speaks about the impossibility of engaging properly with a place or person without engaging in all the stories of that place or person:

In fairness, foreign writers are not the only ones guilty of perpetuating the one-dimensional view of Africa and while I think it's wrong to expect any writer to paint a full picture of a country or a place, I do think is important for African writers to make it clear that they are simply telling one story, one little part of a very large and complicated jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately because of the lack of a positive discourse on Africa, there is a tendency to turn writers, whether they are writers of fiction or not into 'experts' on the continent. These same writers seem to lap up their newly-acquired status, making gross generalisations about countries with countless ethnic groups and languages, while accepting their new role as an 'authority' on x, y or z country. This would never pass for so-called developed countries, considered by their very nature as far too complex to be summarised by one work or one writer, so it saddens me that it still passes for Africa.

I read a book last year which infuriated me to no end called 'Say you're one of them' by a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest; not only was every single one of his stories about children in various parts of Africa devoid of any hope, but what made it worse was that the cover of his book had the following quote from a review: "Akpan reveals Africa's pain, pity, joy and grace, and comes closer to the truth about modern Africa than the entire outpourings of the western mass media.". I appreciate that this is just one person's opinion but the effect has been to somehow sell this book as an accurate account of African children's lives. One of's readers wrote that the book had opened their eyes to how children in Africa live and suffer. The reader is based in the United States of America and having read this book had concluded that this was the reality of all African children.

As Ms Ngozi Adichie states "the consequence of a single story is that it robs people of dignity, it makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult [and] emphasizes how different, rather than how similar we are". Moving to the UK from Sierra Leone as a child, I remember having to contend with established stereotypes from the playground about living in a jungle or swinging from tree to tree and living among animals. That story which my classmates had all seen on television and read in books had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on my reality growing up in an urban centre in a middle class family. To this day, all the Africans I know have never been to, nor seen a jungle, and that includes those who grew up in the village but as African children moving to Europe or America, that was our single story - animals and the jungle.

Anyone who chooses to embrace a single narrative of any place in my opinion, contributes towards the false accounts that are at the root of our ignorance of one another today. Historical accounts are full of lies and half truths because stories were told by individuals who had their own agenda. We now have an opportunity to ensure that many stories are told that reflect not only the cultural diversity of places and people but also that celebrate the beauty of the human race. In all my travels, I can safely say that for every difference I see in people, there are countless similarities because even though our circumstances vary, fundamentally we are all the same.


JBH said...

Well said Hibiscus. What's sad & scary is that in the US, many schools still 'teach' or give their students images of an Africa that is drowning in misery, poverty, suffering children & a place devoid of hope. It's so annoying especially because rather than educate ourselves about the world outside the '1st world' they/ we live in (with the Internet there really is no excuse) most people would rather embrace the general, hopeless perception people have of our beautiful continent.

Anonymous said...

Common images we see on telly here - children covered in flies/happy all singing all dancing village school children welcoming foreign visitors OR The Lion King singing dancing animals. None of this is accurate but until we tell our own stories, the stereotypes continue to endure.

Ms Afropolitan said...

Thanks for this article. Funnily, someone whose judgement I trust recommended Blood River to me last week. I was skeptical and am even more so now as this is precisely how I picture it.Hmm.. I am taking a course in African literature and need to reas Akpan's book also.
Adichie's speech is timelessly relevant. Achebe has also frequently spoken about the dangers of a one sided narrative. What frightens me is that no matter how much this is pointed out the single story is repetitively told, indeed at times by Africans themselves.

The Hibiscus Notes said...

Thanks for reading and commenting. Akpan's book will drive you insane - a friend of mine refused to finish it, I persevered but it was torture. I was so mad I had to leave a comment on Amazon. What makes it harder is that the Western public accept these half-truths without reservation. Infuriating!