Beware of the dangers of the single story: A reflection on 2014

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THE Dangers of a Single Story, is a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a renowned woman African writer who has been rated one of the most influential people in Africa, that alone being another single story. As we come to the end of 2014, I would like to reflect on Chimamanda’s speech by telling another story; the story of my best friend.
The importance of Chimamanda’s reflections became apparent to me when my best friend had so many messages, phone calls, emails, meeting requests and office visits asking her to confirm the message she never relayed to those who had volunteered to be recipients of the messages. What was too surprising is that those who asked for confirmations did not seek the authenticity of the story they had heard or read, rather they were happy or accusatory depending on the side of the fence they chose to sit.
She of cause cannot forget those who chose to be quiet and gossip. Oh, my own best friend? Even when I had been forwarded the messages purported to have been written by her and had been told the heinous actions purported to have been done by her, I too maintained a deafening silence for the whole week because I believed what was being said and was embarrassed for her. How on earth could she do that? After all, if she did not do what I had been told then I expected her to volunteer the truth to me. But my best friend – she was not to be bothered by those like me who chose to believe a single story; those who made no effort whatsoever to first verify the story, but chose to believe and act on it.
When I reflect back, maybe I was wrong in expecting her to tell her own story. After hearing and reading the accusations, I could simply have made her aware of the messages and perhaps waited for her response, if she wanted to respond. I should have given her the opportunity to tell her story from her perspective, but I did not. Eventually, I asked for a meeting with her, laying in front of me the allegations and asking her to answer.  She refused to tell me the story as it is. She told me what I wanted to hear because she said that is what I had wanted to hear. My whole body language she said, believed what I had heard so what was the point of her story, I would never believe it. My actions had spelt it all out, she was guilty, so why would she bother prove her innocence, she asked.Advertisement

What was even more embarrassing to her was that I was a lawyer who had convicted her without trial. I remembered at that point, Chamamanda’s speech, the danger of a single story. There is nothing like a single story Chimamanda said.  Every story has multiple stories depending on who tells the story, how the story is told, to whom the story is told and how they talk about the story. My friend challenged me to reflect on my actions after hearing her story from other people and all I could do was to remember Chimamanda’s speech.
I believe all of us must listen to Chimamanda’s speech on the danger of a single story otherwise if we do not, I suggest we stop bearing children. Why would we bear children and train them to have such a narrow view of the world that when they hear a single story, they act on it without questioning the story. Why would we raise children who judge and accuse others based on a single story? Why would we raise children who do not know that a story, even a written story is as good as the one who is saying it, the one who is writing it and the one who forwards it?
We need to raise our sons and daughters thinking differently and always knowing that every story has multiple faces. They must never use one story to form an opinion or decisions about anything. We are all vulnerable in the face of a single story. Reflecting on Fidelis, the poor guy who Chimamanda’s mother always referred to, she remembered how her mother had told her about the plight of Fidelis. Fidelis was a poor boy from a poor family who could not afford to buy bread, her mother had told her. Fidelis’s plight was always the reason Chimamanda’s mother encouraged her to eat and finish her food.
Yet, to Chimamanda’s surprise, when she visited Fidelis’s family, she was startled to realise that he had a brother who had made beautifully patterned baskets. It had not occurred to her that anyone in Fidelis’s family could be anything other than poor. Chimamanda remembered her college roommate, the one she met when she joined college in the United States; the one who had judged her even before she knew her. The roommate had a story of Africa – a land of catastrophe, a place where all persons spoke their tribal languages. How could Chimamanda speak English, she wondered?
If I had not worked with women and for women as their servant, I would have believed the single story that women support each other. I would have believed the single story that when they hold women conferences and women’s groups, women do so out of love for each other. I would have believed it when women say we want transformative leadership, that leadership which is not punitive, where women protect each other and encourage each other unto leadership. I would have believed the above if, and only if, I believed the single story. I would have believed that women are softer than men; they are more compassionate and easily forgive. I would have believed that women love to support other women and protect each other from this world, the world of men.
If I had believed the single story, I would have been disappointed and completely crushed. But I never believed the single story. Conversely, if I had not supported other women, I would have believed the single story that women do not support each other. I would not have known that women can be mentors; they can carry each other’s burdens and encourage each other. I would have had a wrong impression of working with women and I would never have worked for women. If I had never been circumspect of every story I hear and every piece of information sent to me, I would have been like John Locke who, after his voyage to Africa, came back and reflected that Africans are like beasts with no heads having their mouths and heads on their breast. When he said it, the vulnerable ones believed it for years and even acted on it, that is the danger of a single story.
What is fascinating is that, in the past year, the media and social media has been awash with information of single stories of people that are written and shared on their behalf by other people who make the stories. What is more disturbing is that when these stories are written or shared, there are those who believe them as they are and act on them. There are those who choose to be vulnerable in the face of a single story. Do you believe that a woman was ever stripped naked in Zimbabwe simply because you received a Facebook video or WhatsApp message? Or do you believe it because you saw it or you verified the information or you talked to the woman?
Do you believe that a woman cheated on her husband or a man cheated on his wife simply because of the video sent to you or you actually know the truths behind the stories? The popular story of the maid who beat a child so much and was arrested; do you believe the maid beat up the child or do you believe that the maid was mentally disturbed and lacked good judgement because of insanity? Do you believe the maid was found guilty because she was guilty or because she had no lawyer to defend her? Do you believe that Pistorious is not guilty of the intentional killing of Reeva? What about the fact that he killed her, I mean shot her when he knew she was the only one in the house. Or do you believe that he knew that she was the only person in the house?
Do you believe truly that there was a group of people in Zimbabwe who were planning to kill the president? Or do you believe that no one can kill the president or even plan to? Do you believe that a person can walk to a University, I mean the University which gave you a degree after four years of hard work and simply ask the University to print a PhD certificate for them and the University will print the certificate? Which story do you believe and why?  I do not believe that a 15 year old girl married a 31 year old married man simply because she wanted money.
I do not believe that the Zimbabwean cabinet has less than 50% of female cabinet ministers because there were no women to occupy such positions. I believe I qualify to be a woman minister of Zimbabwe and will be one day. I do not believe that all men are bad because my father is the best man of all men. What all Zimbabweans must soon realise before destroying each other or making unintended enemies is that there is no single story to every story. Each of us chooses how to tell a story and we must choose never to listen to a single story. There are, in each story, different versions of the story.
I remember one male parliamentarian was recently called a human rights defender and what took centre stage was the outrage, the opinion that even for one year that is just for his actions in 2014 he never deserved to be called a human rights defender. The danger was the single story that focused on his past. I remember how some journalist chose to paint a girl he perhaps never spent 24 hours of the day with as the girl who preyed on an innocent rich man and how another woman vocally supported the single story.
I remember the events of this year 2014 and only warn every Zimbabwean that we have fallen in the trap of a single story. Beware of a single story, for in believing it, you rob yourself of the ability to make and remake yourself for the better; the ability to be the one person who will carry the burden with another; the ability to be that person who would make someone’s most terrible situations the most pleasant moment.
I dedicate this message to my best friend, the lady whose stories always have different versions. I salute her ability to see a different side of each story.
Merry Christmas Folks.