Enduring the single story

Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo


It was circa 2008, a friend of mine christened me with my nickname ‘Afroyinbo’. Staring at me for a while, she mused, “Sinem, I swear you’re more Nigerian than some Nigerians I know. You eat Nigerian food, you speak pidgin, you are proud to wear native… You know what, you’re an Afro Oyinbo.” And with that the name stuck.

Living in the UK, occasionally, I find myself having to entertain or grimace through the most tone-deaf conversations amongst the ‘oyinbo’. A few months ago, speaking with a colleague I told her I had a Nigerian funeral to attend over the weekend and wearing black was out of the question. The problem was I had no traditional Nigerian attire in the theme colours of the funeral, purple, white and silver. Her response? “There are some Ghanaian ladies I know… Perhaps you could ask them. Also, what about Tandi (a Zimbabwean colleague) – I know it is not the same part of Africa but she may have something suitable.”

I was too dumbfounded to think of a suitable answer to this one-dimensional view of African women that all I could offer was, “I am not sure I feel comfortable asking someone who is no Nigerian for a traditional outfit.”

This was a woman who’d spent a good part of three decades working with different African regions if not actively travelling to different part of the world. Someone who should be aware of the nuances of diverse cultures of the African continent. Yet what she was suggesting was potentially the equivalent of borrowing a kilt for a Dutch wedding!

On another occasion, another well-travelled colleague naively suggested how British public was helping change the face of poverty. When prodded, his explanation was how poverty used to be associated with Africans which didn’t seem to be the case as much anymore.

Later on, discussing that statement with a Pakistani colleague, I was delighted to find that I wasn’t the only one irked by that statement. She was more astonished with the fact that those who were better travelled and therefore should know better were often the ones who came up with the most tone-deaf and stereotypical statements. Those who complained about the “local food” or had once had ugali in Kenya and hence considered themselves an expert on East African cuisine, those who feel they get down with the crowd because they have been out in Tanzania with their church to build a school in the summer or stayed with a family in their mud hut in Mali for a month.

In all this, the sentiment is often the same, “I, the white saviour, am here to teach you the ways of the civilised world, or help you out of your poverty.” What’s worse, the saviour often feels their experience of one remote corner of Africa would be expanded to cover the whole narrative. It does not matter whether they have spent a decade on the continent or travel to a different African country every month, the common thread that shapes their experience and their narrative is the viewpoint of superiority.

With that viewpoint comes the disregard for nuances or juxtapositions. The white saviour so attuned to the poverty of the masses fails to see the wealth of an increasingly growing middle class. Keen to see their single experience as a sum of the whole, they fail to understand what goes on in a part of Kenya has no relation what’s happening in that same moment in Angola, or Botswana or Ghana. The African continent, after all, has 54 countries, 2000 languages, 3000 tribes. Try to find a common thread there, if you will.

It is often after these tiresome conversations, I feel like sharing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wise words from One of the most popular TED talks, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Adichie ends her talk with the words, “When we reject the single story, when.we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

I would like to think my certified Afroyinbo status has given me both a kind of paradise – in discovering and enjoying another culture as much as my own – salivating at the sight of ikokore or suya as much as I would at Iskender kebab or börek (baked filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough known as phyllo), playing Wizkid as well as Tarkan ( German born Turkish songwriter, singer and performer. He is one of the biggest pop stars in Turkey), occasionally exclaiming “Na wa o” when “no way” doesn’t quite cut it, wearing braids for comfort as opposed to a fashion trend… It has also given me some kind of hell too, having to entertain or endure hearing single stories, with very little hope of rehabilitating your regular oyinbo to understand the possibility of multiple stories.

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Afroyinbo


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