I’m not sure how I happened across this TED video of Nigerian author and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie but I’m so glad that I did. Much of her talk, revolving around examples pointing to the danger of having only a single story about any people or any place resonated with me.
I am Nigerian and I am American, dual-nationality granted to me as a consequence of my birth. Like Adichie, since childhood, growing up in a mostly white town in upstate New York and attending a mostly white school district, I too have been asked about Africa as though I’m supposed to be an expert about every country, historical development, and political and cultural reality on the vast continent. Oh and Africa is most certainly a continent, not a country. Please try to remember that the next time you’re mentioning a list of countries like America, Japan, Brazil, England, and Africa? No, my friend, Africa does not fit at the end of that list.
When Adichie’s American college roommate asked to listen to some of her “tribal music” I could almost see the disappointment which must have reflected on her friend’s face when she pulled out her Mariah Carey cassette tape. I remember so many conversations asking me if those Tarzan-like or Kipling-esque images of Africa still ring true. If we all dance around the fire or live next to elephants, tigers, and giraffe.
The Africa I know is one of modern people living ordinary or extraordinary lives, in houses that might resemble similar structures in any American or western suburb. Not to say there is not poverty because there is but that poverty does not define the Africa I know any more the Southeast D.C. defines the Washington DC region I know. The Africa I know is of people working hard despite the hardships, excelling in education and careers (if they are fortunate to find employment after graduation or as they migrate to foreign countries), laughter, strong familial and community ties, infused with spirituality, good traditional foods, and of Nollywood (the Nigerian Bollywood or Hollywood). The only time I remember seeing large animals commonly found in the pages of a National Geographic magazine was on a trip to the zoo in Lagos.
Like Chimamanda Adichie and Chinua Achebe and even an author with my exact name Ifeoma Okoye, I am Igbo. Their writing inspires me and provides me with examples of people like me. To return to Nigeria and to read their work fills me with a sense of coming home (even though I view my hometown as being in New York) and of understanding. It provides me with examples of people with brown skin and hair and lips and cultural nuances like mine. A much needed reference point in forming one’s identity when surrounded by a world that views Africans “with a kind of patronizing well meaning pity” as a monolith, inferior, beastly, “half devil, half child,” needing to be rescued from themselves by outsiders.
I am Igbo and I’m Muslim, a convert to Islam. Many people I encounter familiar with the Igbo will remark on how unusual or anathema the two concepts seem as the Igbo tribe post-British colonialism has become fiercely identified with Christianity. And in the never-ending battle of tribal one-upsmanship juxtaposed to other tribes, particularly the Muslim ones.
To be a convert in American Islam, even with its diversity is kind of like growing up in a predominantly white town. Very rarely do you see authentic representations of oneself and one’s story. Continue reading “Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story”