In a fascinating TED lecture delivered in October, 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses what she calls “the danger of a single story.” She tells of her childhood reading experiences — of how she learned to read with stories about white, blue-eyed people with English accents who talked about the weather, most frequently snow, despite the fact that she had never experienced snow when she grew up in Nigeria. But this was the single lens through which she had almost come to view white people from distant lands.
Later, during her education as a writer in the United States, she studied with a professor who told her that a novel she had written was “not authentically African.” By this he meant her characters were too much like educated white people and not obviously tribal. He hadn’t realized that by making this requirement of an African novel, he automatically disentitled the young author to the “conventional middle-class Nigerian family” in which she was raised.
Economist Ncube challenged the stereotype of Africa as a “continent of famine, poverty, and hopelessness,” through a study that shows one in three Africans is Middle Class…
What Adichie is getting at in her lecture has broad implications for any of us trying to make sense of the land our media and fragmented education have conditioned us to perceive as a dark continent — a condescending turn of phrase formerly used for the theme park Busch Gardens in Tampa, and one that’s hung around too long in popular mythology.
Several years ago economist Mthuli Ncube from African Development challenged the persistent stereotype of Africa as a “continent of famine, poverty, and hopelessness,” through a study that shows one in three Africans is middle class — and that “record numbers of people in Africa own houses and cars, use mobile phones and the Internet, and send their children to private schools and foreign universities….” What’s especially intriguing about the study is the finding that the growth of the middle class is slightly higher than the rate of the population at large.
Africa is clearly evolving into an economy of “shopping malls with designer labels and smart coffee shops.” The continent now boasts some highly inventive entrepreneurs whom CNN is highlighting in a special project called “African Start-up.”
None of this is to say that Africa does not have its problems — there are in fact pockets of poverty that need to be addressed, and widespread crime that needs to be eradicated.
But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s phrase “a single lens” is a telling one. It makes us wonder why the media chooses to sustain images of a land with kidnappings, torture, and poverty, and discount all growth and promise. Maybe we continually need to persuade ourselves that there are worse things in the world than Detroit and South Central LA.