By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
Recently, I rewatched Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The danger of a single story” and thought about the implications in this field. In international development, I often feel surrounded by single stories; Stories that paint entire communities as being poverty-stricken and without the skills, knowledge, or resources to improve their livelihoods; Stories that hold up a lone flagship species as the epitome of significance, without which its parent ecosystem will flounder, pulling neighboring human communities down with it; Stories where a single innovation is cast as the protagonist for an entire community or region, presenting the only chance at defeating the ills that beset the region.
While these single stories can be powerful in organizing people and resources to enact change and contribute to solving problems, we should be aware that there is always more behind a single story. And, as Adichie tells it, “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.” Acting on a single story or stereotype shrouds opportunities, the complete story and does not contribute to the type of holistic and sustainable change needed.
Adichie makes a great point of enforcing the necessity of unpacking the numerous stories hidden within the single story of Africa we are often faced with; the single story showcasing Africa as a poverty-stricken wasteland where even hope is incapable of flourishing. Within Nigeria, hidden by the single story of a repressive government regime, are stories of business creation and entrepreneurship, of female empowerment, of loss of life, and of love. Communities suffering with high rates of poverty are not simply filled with vulnerable, helpless people waiting for deliverance. While they may be in need of help, they are also host to leaders, entrepreneurs, unique knowledge bases, skill-sets, happiness’s, humors, and enduring relationships.
The field of epidemiology is one that serves well as an example of the importance of taking multiple stories into account when seeking to solve problems. At its core, epidemiology is the search for the causal factors that provoke disease and any epidemiologist will tell you that their research searches for any and all factors as an influencer of disease. A common problem is determining whether or not a hypothesized factor is associated with or is causal of a disease. Epidemiology would be far less useful if it was focused on only a single aspect of the disease. Though a single story or factor may present the grounds to conduct an investigation, it is necessary to utilize multiple stories to develop a more accurate picture of what causes disease. This should be a common thread in everyday life for individuals; a single story presents interest and motivation to learn more but it should not be conclusive of any one thing.
While it is necessary for work to be done on a single attribute of a multidimensional issue, it’s important not to get stuck in the context of a single story and fail to acknowledge the multiple stories influencing an issue. While we are all confronted with the same single story, it is our responsibility as learners and active participants in the lives of others to shape ourselves to see and act beyond what we see. Furthermore, it is a responsibility of each and every one of us to teach others around us the danger of a single story so that we may create a more holistic and productive world.