If you follow Humans Of New York or HONY as many call it, you know that its founder, Brandon, recently embarked on a 50-day trip to ten countries. Doing what he does best, Brandon has been talking to people, taking their pictures, and telling their stories. In an Internet that can sometimes feel like an exposure of humanity’s darkest thoughts come to light, HONY is a God-send that oftentimes reveals that there is another side of the Internet (and humanity) – where empathy, solidarity, and community, is displayed.
In this part of the world, and especially among the middle and upper class of society, there is a tendency to forget that much of the world does not have the same kind of access to the Internet and media in the same ways that we do. Indeed despite always being aware of my own privileges, I am conscious of this because I do not come from this part of the world. I am an African, an identity and a consciousness that plays a huge part in informing who I am, and what I do. So as Brandon made his way firstly to the Middle East, I was intrigued because I wanted to note the responses he would get, knowing the kinds of images and stories that often make up the Western imagination of that part of the world. But when he touched down in the Democratic Republic of Congo a few days ago, I knew that it would begin to hit a little closer to home.
A post that is undoubtedly my favorite thus far, is of a man who is standing next to a picture of an African child, the child reaching out for food. The man is critiquing the picture, specifically saying,
“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don’t want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food…”
The man goes on to talk about how Congo is a land that is blessed with numerous resources, and development and investment is what is needed. Now while I do not wish to go on tangents of my post-colonial perspective, and what I believe has been the dehumanization and bastardization of the African, and the African’s resources by mostly the West; the reality is you cannot genuinely speak of Africa today, and of Africa’s problems today, without starting right at the beginning.
But most stories do not start at the beginning. They tell you of poverty and disease, of bad governments and even worse leaders – which I do hold accountable because many are culprits, often in partnership with Western nations and multinational corporations that do not have their best interests. But let us not forget that Africa today, even the division of African nations today, and the problems they face on the continent and within their borders, is not the result of bad luck or God’s disfavor or some other ridiculous notion. Africa’s problems today are largely the result of centuries of deliberate and methodical imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism that has amounted to nothing short of day-light robbery of Africans. And it’s not just the resources that have been stolen; what I believe is most difficult to forgive, is that even the psychology and the conscience of Africans has sometimes been removed and replaced by mimicry of Eurocentric and Western consciousness.
As I have contemplated these pictures and the stories that are told in them, as I have paid attention to the responses, one of the emerging viewpoints has been that HONY and Brandon have been humanizing “the Other” for the United States citizen, and for the West. And I can entertain that perspective, given the tendency of Western media to depict this “Other” in a negative light at best, and in a completely dehumanizing way, at worst. Despite Chimamanda Adichie’s warning and acclaimed speech, The Danger of a Single Story, as an African and specifically as a Nigerian in the diaspora, I can say from what I’ve witnessed first-hand, the single story is still very much at work in Western spaces, and it is very difficult to break.
Perhaps then let us think of Brandon’s work differently as he goes through this trip. Because I really do love his work and his mission, especially now that he has the opportunity to show other parts of the world, and the stories that exist in these places. Yet I firmly assert that you cannot make “Others” less than, and not show yourself to be less than as well. Thus, I do not believe that HONY and Brandon is humanizing these “Others.” On the contrary, I think he is humanizing people in this part of the world who usually objectify these “Others” into specific stories and images, most of which are negative. Because these “Others” were always more than their prevailing stereotypes; they were always humans with a multitude of stories and images and lives. And I think it is this perspective that may change the single story the most. It is certainly the perspective that most restores my faith in humanity.