by Christel Striekwold
Some years ago in 2009 the female Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie appeared at a TED conference. I was not present but saw her speech online a while later. She immediately caught my attention with her graceful and charismatic way of talking. Adichie spoke about the “danger of a single story”: about how we can often be so sure to understand how the world works and the people who live in it and how it can all turn around the other way if you hear a second story. Ever since I heard her talk I keep her words in mind and I like to show people her speech. Here I would like share with you some of my own experiences concerning a single story.
When I saw war and poverty on TV as a child I was sure that I would be able to solve it one day. I felt responsible and angry. At a very young age I was aware that there were people in this world who were not as fortunate as me. Injustice was unacceptable and people were either good or bad and rich or poor. My life was simple. I guess that’s how a child’s life is supposed to be. After elementary school I went to a high school like any other high school in my country. I was, if I may so, a pretty ideal high school student. I never ditched classes, always did my homework the way I was supposed to and I even listened to what teachers had to say. I was a good girl who hung out with everyone she wanted to. But I remember a classmate asking me one day which group I belonged to. Having all these different cliques that are so typical of high schools, he found it necessary to put me in one. I found his question so stupid. Was it really necessary to belong to a group? Did I need to be one thing only for people to accept me? For him it definitely seemed necessary to put me in a box, otherwise he apparently couldn’t understand me and he didn’t really seem to try either. I guess labelling people made it easier for him to get a grasp on the world around him.
After graduating from high school I studied social work for four years. Once I finished, I kept on studying and traded the Netherlands for Belgium where I started criminology. I guess I always liked hearing different sides of the story. Then in the summer of 2009, after I had a pretty tough year, I thought it was time to spread my wings and go to South Africa to volunteer. I paid a lot of money to be able to go there. And that money, so I found out later on, mostly ended up going to the organization that took care of my trip, not to the family where I was staying. That’s one of the reasons why I now encourage people to take care of their own trip whenever they choose to volunteer. The money I made could have fed about 50 children in a rural African village. Nonetheless I was ready to make the world a better place and filled with young enthusiasm I eventually left. The situation makes me think now of what Adichie said in her speech; “Africans, ready to be saved by a kind white man”. What was I even thinking? Me, a young girl from the Netherlands, being able to help a whole country? A whole continent? Nevertheless, I had one of the most incredible eye-opening moments during my stay there.
The African continent had made quite an impression on me and in October 2010 I left again for Senegal. I started a second bachelor in International Cooperation and a six month internship was obliged. I started working with an NGO in Rufisque, a small town next to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Not being able to speak French at that time made it more difficult for me to integrate, although that experience made me realize later on how frightening it can be if you change cultures and everything is completely different from what you’re used to. But the Senegalese people being really friendly and hospital made me feel at home very quickly.
Around the fourth month of my stay I remember sitting on the seaside in Dakar with a new friend. We were enjoying the lovely view and the soft breeze when two middle-aged Western women walked by. They were being followed by a group of street children. Me and my friend were watching them as street children always find a way to get something out of tourists. One woman handed her terribly expensive camera to her friend after which she took some candy out of her bag. When she started handing it to the children the other woman made sure her generous friend as well as the poor children were in the picture. The situation made me really angry and I realized that I was already so much used to my new home that I got to see it in a different way. Then I could see the women sitting around the dining table with their families sharing stories of how the children were begging for candy and showing them pictures of it. Why could they not take pictures of the wonderful experiences that I’ve had living there? Could they not take pictures of the happy families living around? The craftsmen on the local markets? The fishermen? The women owning beauty salons? Why could they not share a different story?
It made me think and I realized later on that showing a different story is not only about randomly pointing your camera in a different direction, although I’m sure it can take you places. It’s merely about making a choice not to try and judge on the single story you already know and to keep gathering stories so you can learn and share your experiences. Although our opinions are often formed of what we see and hear directly around us it’s important to realize that there will always be another world we don’t know about and is left there for us to discover: a world without a political agenda, a world where power is only a word simply because it has no value. We each have the power and privilege to experience, feel and share that undiscovered part of the world. I’m not saying this because I suddenly became an expert on the topic. I’m saying this to make you think because in the end, we all cope with prejudices in our lives. So we also have to handle them. My Kenyan boyfriend told me a while ago about a party he went to when he was still studying in California. A girl came up and asked him for how long he had to drive to come there. Or the time when my roommate thought Kenyans are good runners because they cannot afford bicycles to go to school. And the numerous times when people react after seeing my passport and cannot understand why they don’t hear any Dutch accent, assuming being born in one country means you cannot speak other languages. Or all the years that I had my dreadlocks and everyone automatically assumed that I was a Bob Marley fan. I do appreciate his music, but that is not the point. It’s like Adichie said; “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete”.
I’ve been working as a community worker and counselor for a little while and I learn everyday from the people that I meet. Like a few weeks ago, when I went to visit a mosque in our neighbourhood. When I was having tea with the two Egyptian men responsible for the place they almost felt kind of pressured at some point to tell me that they were not terrorists. I felt the need to say; “don’t apologize”, but then I realized one person saying that wouldn’t make any difference.
My point is, and I think a lot of you will agree with me on this, that I take my “job” to tell stories, build bridges between people and start discussions very seriously. It goes beyond a professional level. It’s who I am and who I choose to be. Or at least, how I choose to act and re-act. My world now is not good or bad neither is it only black or white. It’s black, white, and every colour in between. So I’m not going to end this article with a famous quote, because that would only assume people like you and me have nothing important to say. I’m going to end this article by saying that I believe in stories, many stories, stories that matter and make a difference. Stories that surprise us, touch us and wake us up. Because in the end, we are all part of the same novel.