03 An African story for the African century

Africa has over 3,000 ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 diverse languages and living in varied lands from the evocative plains of the savannah to ice-tipped mountains, sandy deserts and tropical rainforests. Yet in that diversity we are united by our oral traditions.

Africa is a continent of storytellers. Yet there are only a few single stories being told.

In 2009 literary giant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave what has become one of the top 25 most shared TED talks in history. In it she expounds the danger of a single story: a story that shows a people as one thing, over and over, “until that is what they become”.

Chimamanda says, “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali’. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another’. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

The danger of the “single stories” we have been told about Africa is that they create stereotypes. Chimamanda warns us that, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

A single story can break the dignity of a people. Many powerful leaders and institutions have vested interests in telling a particular single story. Hlumelo Biko believes that: “In Africa, perhaps much more than elsewhere, society is shaped almost completely by the elite’s experience of reality.” Stories shape economic realities, even when faced with the hard facts of market forces. Economic fluctuations have been shown to be substantially driven by popular narratives.

Two of the most prevalent single stories told about our continent are of Africa Failing or Africa Rising (see side box). These narratives give elites power and benefit them. Chimamanda tells us that, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

Yet the tides of history are rarely turned by a handful of elite leaders, but rather by the emergence of a movement for change.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk on the danger of a single story. Credit: alamy.com