Chimamanda Adichie is one of my favorite writers. She is a Nigerian and often talks about her experience of being an African in this part of the world – the West. One of the best Ted Talks I have ever watched (and yes, I have a bias) is the one she gave about The Danger of a Single Story. You might watch it before continuing here to have a better understanding of this piece.
I have lived in two African countries where combined, I have still spent most of my life. Not my adult life, but certainly most of my childhood. I was born in Nigeria – my country of origin – but also lived in Botswana for over a decade. And no matter where I am, I have always considered myself a Nigerian. Even though I am not one for much patriotism because of my insistence that like many things, nations and ethnicities are socially constructed; I am nonetheless proud to be a Nigerian from the Delta, and a daughter of the Urhobo ethnic group.
It wasn’t until I came to the United States for university that I began to not only see myself as Nigerian, but also as an African. I was always aware that I was African but living in the United States created a hyperconsciousness of my continental identity that I can no longer escape. It’s quite fine because I don’t wish to escape it. Despite Nigeria being a well-known country – sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for all the wrong reasons – I was and am still subjected to being “the African,” or “the girl from Africa,” etc. And while it still fills me with immense irritation that many college-educated Americans do not communicate a distinction of Africa as a continent, a continent made up of diverse nations and even more diverse ethnicities, I embrace my African identity wholeheartedly.
In the United States, however, there is mostly only one story of Africa and the African identity. “The starving African child” “A continent of poverty, war, disease, and destruction” “A continent that is lacking” “A continent that cannot sustain itself” “A place where people are always in want” “A place of sorrow.” When Africa is not a forgotten continent, these are the images that are pronounced. This is the single story that America and the rest of the West have told of Africa. After all, it is why there are a multitude of causes dedicated to alleviating Africa’s problems. But if this is the only story you know of the continent, then you know very little of it.
Do not tell me that you went on a mission trip to an African village and assert that you know all there is to know about Africa and its problems. Do not tell me that you went on a safari for one week and now you have witnessed the beauty of Africa. Do not insist that you visited one major city and now you fully understand the crossroads that Africa and Africans find themselves in. You do not know Africa if this is the case. Those of us who are from one of its nations are barely able to describe its complexity in communicable language. Africa is a not a single story and it is certainly not a simple story.
So, how does one describe Africa then? We begin by explaining that our description, however precise, will always falls short of the compound history and presence that exists in African nations. Africa’s nations are both trying to hold onto their centuries of traditions that define its people, while attempting to grow and thrive in a modern world. A lot of African people are materially poor, but there is also incredibly offensive wealth in the continent that makes the ostentatiousness of Hollywood celebrities look like child’s play. There are Africans that are also in the middle class with white picket fences, a few children, and a dog. And there is richness in African culture beyond material things. Richness that extends to how warm a person is to their neighbor, and whether he or she is fulfilling their destiny, and making those around them feel a part of it; whether one is making those who came before you, proud.
There is the Africa that loves its indigenous prints and dances and songs. And there is the Africa that will bump and grind to whatever is playing on your radio station at the moment; wearing the same styles and colors that hit the scene at your favorite designer store. There is the Africa that will fuse the best of African culture and the influence of Western media to enable creations that embody an African modernity. There is that Africa that is building and developing cosmopolitan cities, and there is the Africa that is rural and traditional. Yet still there is the Africa that is quiet, natural, untouched, and has been so for thousands of years.
Many African nations like many other places, need healing and restoring and an end to crimes against their people. There is poverty, hunger, and helplessness in many parts of the continent. But in many parts of the continent too, we also find oases of hope; places that are flourishing and growing and changing for the better every day. In these places we find people who value their history, but they also look forward to the future of what their nations will become. This is what I know of Africa, and of Africans: That there are many, many stories of the continent; stories that will bring tears to your eyes – of sadness and of laughter, and of love. But never a single story.
While I make my home currently in Chicago, my heart is never far away from all the places that I have lived. But this heart especially, is the heart of an African. And the heart of an African is both filled with sorrow and joy – sorrow for the plight of those who suffer, and joy for those who despite their suffering, rise above. My heart is filled with great pride that despite the many attempts to deprive Africa of its resources and of its identity – its people still prevail throughout the world. And as an African, my motivation to tell my story is to bring yet another story of Africa, so as to diminish the single story that you may have had. Because for far too long and far too often, Africa’s story has not been told by Africans. And it has not been told accurately.
Perhaps Africa and Africans are contradictions. But we are never a single story. We are a colorful people; we are a people of many parts, and we want the world to know our many parts. And maybe in this way we accept that like everyone else, we are first and foremost human; and we engage in all the complexities of being human in our national and ethnic identities. And we understand this humanity aspect all too well in our continent of contradictions. After all, as we are often very proud to proclaim that we are the birthplace of humanity. And perhaps if you remember this, no matter where you are from, you can also find a little bit of Africa in you.