Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Danger of A Single Story

I recently finished the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was introduced to Adichie when I came across one of her lectures titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story”. Purple Hibiscus follows the life of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old living in Nigeria.  The novel describes Kambili’s relationship with her family, friends and how the overall political/social state of Nigeria influences their existence. I found the novel beautifully descriptive, interesting and complex. Adichie was able to describe historically rooted layers of power, while intertwining them in the everyday experience of a fifteen-year-old female.  This novel was Adichie’s first, and received excellent reviews. One of the reasons this novel received such positive attention was because it created a complex narrative of Nigerian people. Rather than focusing solely on the disparity in the country, it illustrated, that similar to families from other regions, Kambilis’ family had a loving, tumultuous, contradictory relationship.

A review from the Boston Globe proclaims: ‘Adichie’s understanding of a young girl’s heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty’s Mississippi’

This review helps to outline how welcomed Adichie’s ability to convey such an identifiable narrative is from an audience that so often only receives a single narrative about African nations.

In her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, Adichie eloquently addresses the single narrative that Africans and North Americans have been receiving of ‘Africa’. Adichie recalls how reading British and American novels in her childhood subsequently shaped her own writing and made her believe people like her (Africans) could not exist in literature. She also discusses the single story of ‘poverty’, which resulted in her American roommates surprise in Adichie’s ability to speak English and the non- tribal music she listened to.

This single story that Adichie discusses is extremely relevant when reviewing North American ideas of ‘development’. As addressed in previous posts, the single form of ‘development’ recognized in North America is often the idea that  ‘the first world helps the third world’.  Adichie’s lecture speaks to this point, as she outlines how power relations and complex narratives are intertwined. While Adichie read complex stories about American and British individuals, western individuals rarely read complex stories about Africans.

She illustrates this point with the story of a student that came to her and said:

‘It was is a shame that Nigerian men are all physical abusers like the father in your novel’.

Adichie responded that she has just read a novel called American Psycho and that:  ‘It was such a shame that young Americans were all serial murderers’.

Adichie goes on to explain that she would never think one character from an American novel would define an entire population, because she had read a variety of American novels, with a variety of complex characters.  The student however had rarely come in contact with complex narratives about Africans. Adichie claims her familiarity with American stories is related to America’s position of power in the world, and ability to spread their stories/cultural products. She outlines in contrast to these complex American stories, narratives about Africans that North Americans receive, only focus on poverty and catastrophe.

This single narrative is difficult to dispute when reviewing Africa in North American news coverage, documentaries, best sellers etc. Adichie contends: ‘show a people as one thing over and over again and they become it’. North Americans understanding of individuals in the ‘third world’ has been shaped by this single story of poverty/chaos and consequently so too have our understandings of methods of development. If all we see are images and stories of poor, helpless and dying people in the ‘third world’ then of course we are going to understand in our position as a monetarily wealthy nation we should help them. Like Adichie, I do not believe denying stories of poverty and death in the ‘third world’ is the answer, but creating a more complex understanding and thus hopefully influencing ideas of development. With more complex narratives about the ‘third world’ hopefully more complex methods of development will follow.

If you have not already watched her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ I would highly recommend watching the entire video.

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Filed under Africa, Aid, Charity, Current Events, Development, How to write about Africa, International Development, Journalism, The First World, The Third World

Mugabe and the White African- A Film Review

I recently came across a trailer online for the documentary Mugabe and the White African. I am very interested in how African societies, peoples and the idea of African ‘development’ are presented to a ‘western’ audience. Therefore, a film that focused on ‘white Africans’ intrigued me. The film has recently garnered attention from various documentary communities and has won a variety of awards including the winner of the best documentary by the British independent film awards.

It is impossible to generalize how an audience who comes from diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives will receive films and images. I think it is often equally as difficult to understand why the director, writer, cinematographer etc. chose specific images or used certain language. However, I think there is some value in analyzing films for their educational significance when they claim to be documentaries.  While the medium of film can be argued to be incapable of presenting any sort of ‘truth’ due to necessary manipulations of reality (ie- editing shots, adding sound), I would argue many individuals, including myself, still view documentaries as a valid source of information (and documentary makers present them as such). Watching Mugabe and the White African, I was astounded at the lack of contextual information and the one-sided story that was being presented in the guise of information on the current situation in Zimbabwe.

Briefly, the film follows a family of white Zimbabwean farmers as they attempt to legally challenge Mugabe’s land reform program.  Viewers witness Mike Campbell, his son in law, their entire family and fellow white Africans, as they endure threats and violence, while legally attempting to stop Mugabe’s government from ceasing their farmland.  During the film I scribbled down my thoughts regarding the film’s portrayal of Africa(ns), and the narrative relation to common stereotypes. Rather than writing a blog entry on the immense lack of information in this film, I will share what I perceived as the positive and negative aspects of it.

Positives:

  • As the Campbell’s went back and forth from Zimbabwe to Namibia, it was refreshing to witness the different countries in Africa portrayed as their own nations, with different cultures/rules.
  • Rather than the regular rural ‘Africa’ scenes of large/bustling cities were shown.
  • The inclusion of educated black Africans (although in some scenes the narrative seemed to imply they were working in conjunction with Mugabe’s government) was welcomed.
  • The white Africans’ devote religious beliefs broke the mould of ‘uber religious black people’.
  • The question of must you be black to be ‘African’? I think this is an important question to think about, in breaking down preconceived notions of ‘Africans’. I enjoyed watching white individuals in Africa that did not consider themselves Europeans (although this point was kind of ruined when combined with scenes of their parents in England). I feel there is a common understanding that South Africa has white Africans, but when it comes to other Southern African countries white Africans do not exist. Raising the question of African identity in reference to race was valuable, although could have been taken further if the binaries of white/black were challenged.
  • It was interesting to see the camera itself used in the form of a shield/weapon.

Negatives:

  • The most striking negative was the lack of contextual information. I was hoping to be presented with information about Mugabe’s rise to power and fall into his current political policies/state. I do not recall one reference to the impact of colonialism on Zimbabwe and how that directly influences Mugabe’s policies. The lack of information made this film extremely biased, and more of a personal narrative than having a connection to the greater political circumstances.
  • While it was innovative in the sense it looked at ‘white Africans’, it was the same old story of African corruption/ ‘these people cannot rule themselves’. While I am not claiming to be a fan of Mugabe, it is unprofessional to present this type of narrative with no real historical/social context.
  • Throughout the entire film the white farmers talk on behalf of their workers and in their dialogue come off as ‘saviours’ of the poor black farmers. While the black farmers are probably appreciative of having employment and a place to live, I would have liked to hear them verbalize how the land reform would have affected them, or how they felt about Mugabe’s government etc.
  • The black Africans that were able to speak on camera were the ‘educated’ ones, so perhaps while the films somewhat challenged ideas of race, it relied on barriers of class to sculpt the narrative.
  • I always find it irritating when subtitles are given to a certain group of people (in this case black Africans) that the western audience is presumed as not capable of understanding. Also if you are making a documentary about a specific location, you should want people from that region or country to be able to access it and they might have difficulty understanding accents that westerners are ‘supposed’ to understand. I believe in subtitles for all or none.

I’d love to hear other opinions on this film.  I think it would be an interesting (or potentially frustrating) film for viewers who have a great deal of background knowledge regarding the state of Zimbabwe and past/current conditions. I fear that this film may only reinstate stereotypical ideas of Africa, and corrupt African governments, to those whose understanding of Africa’s current condition comes from news and popular broadcasting shows. Watching the film you do feel for the Campbell family and the circumstances they are in and I believe the film is interesting as a narrative about a family struggle.

I will leave you with what I think is the most insightful line in the entire film. It comes from a government official, as he arguing with the white farmer: ‘We want to deal with friendlier people – the Chinamen, the Indians. We don’t want anything to do with you [white] people, we don’t need you’.

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Filed under Africa, Current Events, Development, Politics