“When I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States, I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A few years ago, I would say I had a single story of Africa. My perception of an entire continent had been fed to me via fundraisers like Comic Relief, charity ads with starving children, the odd safari story and war images in the news. All I knew of Africa was poverty, starvation and AIDS. This is generally the only times we’re exposed to Africa in Western media, so while it can be embarrassing to admit my ignorant perception, it’s also likely that I’m not the only one who has/had this view.
It seems relevant to talk about this now in light of the Comic Relief row that’s going on in the UK. Last week, documentary presenter Stacey Dooley posted pictures on her Instagram of herself holding a sad looking African child, with one of the pictures being captioned ‘OBSESSED.’ The picture sparked a debate on Instagram, with many asking her to go and speak to No White Saviors while she was in Uganda, an Instagram group that’s committed to educating the world on the dangers that Western (therefore often white but not strictly limited to) travellers can cause with Africa.
Now it’s important for me to stress here that I am by far from an expert on this. I’m only just learning about these issues myself, but as Reset is about relearning how to travel together, I wanted to share my understanding of it all.
We’ve all seen images of Western travellers surrounded by African children. It feels like the generic profile pic of anyone who’s volunteered in Africa. So let’s think about how many times we’ve seen those pictures and how that feeds into our subconscious. Who comes off well in these pictures? Who comes off as the ‘hero’ of the story? Who is telling us the story of these people? The Westerner.
Despite knowing very little about the history, present-day problems or local communities there, the narrative that we’re given is that these people need Westerners to go over there and ‘save’ them. But what can be even more harmful, is that presenting these images in this way, and only seeing it from the Westerners viewpoint, alienates the other people in the story. Westerners and Africans are never viewed as equals in these pictures. They don’t highlight our similarities but instead emphasize our differences. I don’t look at those types of pictures and relate with the local people, instead I pity them. I don’t get to see their intelligence or creativity or personalities. All I see is poverty. Which leads to the type of experience quoted at the beginning that Chimamanda speaks about in her TEDTalk ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ Her roommate couldn’t comprehend “Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals…”
How would my perception of Africa and African people be different, if I had grown up seeing images of successful Africans? If Comic Relief had shown us local people doing work to help communities or had local celebrities talking about issues that their countries are facing? What if Stacey had taken herself out the picture and shown us this little boy with his family and told us their story? The repeated images that we see shape our subconscious so much, and it’s something that we need to be aware of when we’re travelling.
How can we do better when we travel?
Think before you take pictures or tell stories about the place you’re visiting. Are you perpetuating stereotypes about this country? Is the truth being told and from whose perspective? Have you asked for permission? How would you feel if a stranger took a picture of your child while they were messy and then shared it with all their friends and family?
Stay humble and open-minded. When you’re travelling from the West, don’t assume that you know better or that you’re more intelligent. I embarrassingly did this when I travelled to India. I went there assuming I knew all about the issues facing women there and asked some local guys about it. What’s even more embarrassing is that I felt sorry for some of the workers I made friends with when I first arrived. By the end of my visit I couldn’t believe I ever thought that. Here they were living in a beautiful place, meeting new people every day and doing a job that they absolutely adored - it was what I was seeking for myself and yet as a Westerner I automatically felt pity for them.
If you’re thinking of volunteering, what’s making you want to go halfway across the world to help a country you know nothing about? Do you have a required skillset that you can contribute to a specific community? Often young Westerners with little knowledge, research or skills go to ‘help’ in African countries and when they leave they’ve probably done more good for their own conscience than the actual communities.
Suggested watching: The Danger of a Single Story. Listen to Chimamanda explain the importance of the stories we tell and hear to get a much better understanding of this.