In 2009, Novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED talk entitled The Danger of a Single Story about how people often develop a specific opinion of a certain ethnicity, country, region or people group because of one single story being told about them. She grew up in Nigeria, went to school in the States and realized that many of her school peers had only heard a single story of Nigeria and even Africa. She speaks of the ignorance that we can live with when we base a whole group or place on one story. She says we must try to be conscious of what we believe to be true about groups and places, while also understanding why we believe that to be true.
The concept of a “single story” took on a whole new meaning for me after spending two months as an intern with World Renew in rural Uganda this summer. I noticed that many people not only paint other cultures, places and people groups with the very broad brush of a single story, but many people also believe a “single story” they have been told about themselves. I think this sad reality can be seen among any people group or culture, especially in the age of social media.
The rural Ugandans I was living among had been given a single story about themselves. Through colonialism, media and the non-profits that visit the area temporarily, and what was considered “common knowledge,” the people I was living among are being told a story about themselves as poor and helpless. They were also being told that North America is a perfect, utopian society where everyone is rich and doesn’t have to work hard, while Uganda is a poor country that needs help.
This narrative is causing damage. Why would anyone want to invest in making their place in the world better when they could instead try and get to North America, where everything is easy? Why bother fixing anything when entire nations of wealthy people in North America can come and do it for them? This is another danger of the single story. When you believe something to be true about yourself or your people, it influences the way you behave.
Part of my role as an intern working alongside a partner organization with World Renew was to share some inspiration with Village Savings and Loans Associations in the Amuria District. I wanted to use this opportunity to correct misconceptions these Ugandans may have had and build on the biblical truth that they already knew. I shared with each group The Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19) and talked about how God gives everyone resources that we need to invest in. God doesn’t place us anywhere by accident, I said; God has us live where we live for a reason, and he has given us gifts, skills and resources for us to use. I talked about how Canada and U.S. are far from perfect and people living there also wrestle with various forms of poverty. After that, it was amazing to see how this realization could motivate and move the people in their own context.
This experience and learning helped me develop a deeper understanding of international development, but it also made me think a lot about how this connects to myself and those around me at home. How often do I believe a single story about other people? How often do my own actions perpetuate a certain story, and how can I better help people to see the truth about the world and themselves?