The Power of Our Single Story

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published in Next Newspapers, February 13, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hits the nail on the head when she calls the West on their obsession with the single story of gore that is their Africa. Adichie is absolutely right: In the West, the power of the single story races through cash registers and rifles through white liberal pockets and rich racist valleys. However, there is the implication that the single story is mostly the product of the other (aka white person). Lately the single story has been bred, watered and nurtured for profit by some African hustler-writers. I am talking of people writing to the test of Western hunger for the stereotypical.

Whites are not the only ones that climax to the beat of stereotypical African stories. With all due respects, the bulk of contemporary African writing is all about the single story that the white world loves. Indeed, several African writers have over the years focused on the single story for profit.  These writers will probably ask you, what else is there to talk about? And I agree, for different reasons. Take Nigeria for instance; there is only one single story. What our thieving leaders are doing to Nigeria, is quite simply black on black crime. To tell any other story would be criminal. In that respect, our writers are right to turn their rage inwards and shame our leaders with a single story – the fate of the fabled tortoise that borrowed feathers from birds, flew with them to a feast in the skies and tricked them out of every morsel of the feast. In that fable, the enraged birds sent the tortoise crashing down to earth sans borrowed feathers. Let us send our leaders the way of the greedy tortoise. The good people of Tunisia just sent their thieving tortoise packing.

Achebe’s essay, Today the Balance of Stories speaks to the racism inherent in stories about Africa as told by Western writers and the occasional accomplice of color like VS Naipaul. Adichie’s Single Story speech is essentially Achebe’s seminal essay set to (YouTube) video. The new medium is not The Book. It is called YouTube. Ideas rock and books are finding their way into garden mulch. Think about it. Achebe is a prophet rendered mute by advances in technology. In Adichie’s video testimony gone viral on the Internet, Achebe’s great words are re-born. YouTube says we ought to take a break from writing books and return to the oral tradition of our ancestors.

Adichie represents how things used to be and what to hope for in the Nigeria of our dreams. Sadly, she is a painful stand-out from the forest of mediocrity that now insists on respect. And hers is a thoughtful and inspiring speech. But then, why are we running around assuring people that we really are human beings? Why are we so defensive about our humanity and why do we proclaim our humanity by denying in installments, all about us that is authentically African? Why must we quote mostly Western authors to prove that we are indeed learned? What is wrong with our food? The French eat snails; it is not more appetizing because they call it escargot. Why must we hide the fact that some of us relish sautéed termites and loudly proclaim our love of caviar er fish eggs? Many of us, especially our leaders have a complex about our African heritage. Let us think deeply about these things. Our psychosis is more than skin deep.

Heads ought to bloody roll for what has become of Nigeria under civilian leadership. How can things be this bad in a land just bursting at the seams with some of the best resources the world has? How can people ignore the fact that there are no roads, there is no light, no water, no safety and security, no health care facilities worth using and the educational system has virtually collapsed? Our educational system is so bad many of our Nigerian “professors” refuse to allow their children in their own classrooms. What other stories are there to tell of Nigeria?

I am really beginning to believe that our people deserve what they are getting. Take Abuja; basically thieving intellectuals, civil servants and politicians have carved up all the choice land for themselves and shoved everyone else to the far outskirts to live like sub-humans. And the people seem happy about it, happily going about their daily business of begging thieves for crumbs. If we really believe we are human beings like the white man, we should be fighting this black on black crime. As a people, we should take a deep breath, stop the navel gazing and reflect on why five decades after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart we are still lecturing the white man on the need for respect. It is hard to respect what the eye sees. There is not much to respect in the shame that has become Nigeria. If we urinate in our living room, how can we demand that visitors respect said living room? Anyway, my point is this; we are our own worst enemies.