Written for the STV ‘Write Factor‘ competition (edited slightly to allow the inclusion of the video that inspired it originally), I didn’t make the short list but I still like the article. The single story hurts us all in the end.
This video is doing a round of the Internet at the moment; its of a talk given by Nigerian authoress, Chimamanda Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus) about what she calls the danger of the single story. She articulates, in a rather personable manner, some important ideas that got me thinking about how we view the world and ourselves.
At it’s most basic, the single story is where one fact or idea about a person, a group of people, a country, even a continent, comes to define them in the eyes of others. Reducing them to a simple 2-D caricature. It is often convenient for governments to use this method when dealing with sections of society that they wish to control. Power is the operative tool in this equation, the more power one party has, the more stories that it can have told and heard, the less power, the fewer stories.
Nigeria, the eighth most populous country in the world, is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its independence next year. Nigeria gets caught on two fronts by the single story, firstly by the old referring to a continent as a single country tendency, and secondly by its reputation of collapsed infrastructure, ethnic strife and Internet fraud. In the run up to the anniversary the Nigerian government has started an intensive campaign to ‘Re-brand Nigeria’ to the rest of the world, though a lot of their efforts seem more like an attempt to increase civic pride and reduce corruption – both good things in their own right – rather than actually doing anything to inspire that pride. Yet Nigeria has much to be proud of, one of the three largest film industries in the world, vibrant grass-roots engagement with literature, especially their own. Thriving entrepreneurs, tech savvy and still ingenious enough to turn bicycles into wheelchairs. It is these stories that need to be heard, that can do more to enhance and solidify Nigeria’s identity and reputation to the rest of the world than any amount of stylish ad campaigns.
In today’s world, despite 24-hour news channels, the Internet and the wealth of newsgathering and historical information that lies at our fingertips, it is just as easy to only encounter a single story of a place as it was a hundred years ago. This might not bother the average person on the street, but they should consider that failing to acknowledge that Nigeria has more than one story in turn allows other people to portray a single story of Scotland, one that doesn’t look remotely like the country we live in. As Adichie says “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Scotland isn’t just about empty Highland vistas, castles and ceildhs, anymore than it’s only about deep-fried pizzas, teenage pregnancy and stabbings on a Saturday night. They are part of the story but not the whole story. The single story reduces a national obsession with football to sectarian bigotry, forgets about Gaelic children’s programmes, it erases the Italian ice-creameries that were a staple of day trips to the seaside for several generations, it denies the unexpected burst of homesickness I suffered in Crewe station on hearing a Glaswegian lady give the guard a piece of her mind about the service, for no better reason than that she was wearing a Sari. There are a thousand stories of Scotland, but if we want them to be heard or sought out by others, we need to do some listening and searching of our own.