A friend of mine recently posted a link to this video of Nigerian Novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaking about the danger of a single story, and it is officially my favorite thing ever. Her main point is that if you only know a culture through a very narrow perspective, a single story, you don’t really know the culture at all. If you label someone (or an entire country or region) as poor, uneducated, suffering, in need of charity–if you put yourself above them–you may so easily miss the gifts they also possess, and are able to give back to you. Joy, artistry, sense of community, their individual humanity.
I’ve seen this in my own experience and travels, over and over again. In Rwanda, fifteen years after the genocide, of course people are still struggling to come to terms with it and move forward as they have to live side-by-side with people who have killed members of their family–but Rwandans still know how to smile and laugh in the face of adversity, and as little as most of them have, they are more generous hosts than a lot of Americans I know. Women are getting a greater share of power in Rwanda these days, but only because of the horrific fact that so many men and boys were slaughtered during the genocide.
And Rwanda is also a stunningly beautiful country, and one of the few places in the world that you can literally come face-to-face with a mountain gorilla, the same mountain gorillas whose story Dian Fossey told, even though she was constantly harassed for her work and eventually murdered by poachers.
No such thing as a single story.
If I had never gone to Rwanda, I never would have met the most amazing woman I have ever met in my life, Rosamond Carr, a New Yorker who, in 1949 moved with her husband to Africa and spent much of the rest of her life in Rwanda, turning her flower plantation into an orphanage after the genocide (she was 82 years old at the time, and her friends and family thought she was utterly mad to return; she was still there at the age of 93 when I met her, sharp as a tack and still doing what she loved.) Her memoir, Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda, is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read about following your true path in life (rampaging elephants, drought, bankruptcy, heartbreak be damned).
This summer I had the opportunity to visit El Higueral, a small community in the mountains of El Salvador. My friend Brandon’s church in Kansas City is a sister community, and they send down a small delegation a couple times a year. It was so not about simply doing some volunteer work or distributing some charitable donations. There was no agenda, religious or otherwise. These two communities were truly sister communities, and we were told from the beginning that the main purpose of our trip was simply to be with these people, hang out, get to know them.
Sure, we managed to do a few projects, like painting the church they have been working on building for the past five years, cleaning out six months worth of dust from the one-room clinic, meeting with the scholarship students and the women’s savings cooperative. Everyone gave whatever skills they had–an artist painted a mural on the outside wall of their community center; a group of nurses, a psychologist & a chiropractor set up a clinic and in the end saw over 50 people; folks who knew Spanish acted as translators; the sporty ones played soccer with the kids; the teachers taught a few English classes. Me, I was simply along to tell the story.
Some of the folks on this trip, like Dean, Carol and Ed from Boston, had been coming down to El Higueral for over a decade. They had seen babies grow up, they knew each individual and family–there was no single story, or rather, there were about 130 single stories.
And three times a day, we ate our meals with different families and got to know Rosita, who had been a medic in the war and now ran the community clinic (she’s pint-sized, but believe me, you do not mess with Rosita). And Veronica, the twelve year old with cerebal palsey who looked like she was no more than three & was only starting to learn to walk, but always had a giant, giant smile on her face and was so clearly full of joy. Samuel,with his giant round eyes. Chepe, a former FMLN fighter, who was our guide on the two and a half hour hike up to Izotalillo, a much smaller coffee-growing community.
There was one elderly lady in the community, whose name I never even knew, who would, every time she saw me, say a few words in Spanish (incomprehensible to me) and give me a great, big hug.
When we left, we left rich in stories. The entire community gathered around the community center to send us off. Dean played some songs, a young men’s group from the community played some songs, we shared our thanks and gratitude for their hospitality, they thanked us for becoming part of their community and wished us many happy returns. We played with the kids one last time, piled up our mattresses, swept out the community center, and headed home (also with eight suitcases full of coffee beans and crafts which Dean distributes in the states).
When I was in Guatemala (and El Salvador for the first time) in 1996–meeting with widows of the disappeared, political activists, community councils, artisans–we would often ask, “What can I do to help?” And every time, the answer was one I continued to hear over and over again throughout the years; it was simply this: tell our stories.
As writers, this is our gift. We get to tell stories. Every story is unique, because it has never been written before–not by you, not through your eyes and your words. That’s why it is so important–because there is no such thing as a single story. Every time you share your story, you open up a world to someone who might never have know it. You become part of a visionary kaleidoscope of truths through which we are better able to see the world in all its richness.
What is the danger of a single story? A black man can never be president of the United States. Marriage is only between a man and a woman. Heath care is only for people who can afford it. Muslims are terrorists. Women who are raped ask for it. People on public assistance are lazy.
Chimamanda Adichie was approached by a young man at one of her reading, and he said, I read your novel, and I’m so sorry that you live in a country where your young men are so abusive. Her response: I just read this novel, American Psycho, and I’m so sorry that the young men of your country are murders.