Learning to Reject the Single Story

How many snap judgements have you made today? This week?

How many times have you been able to write a person off based off of a story or two you’ve heard about them?

“She’s obnoxious.” “He’s a jerk.” “What an idiot.”

Just like that, an entire person, reduced to just a word. Two or three syllables. Labeled, stored, and forgotten. Never mind the way that person became the way they are, or the complexities of their life that might have led up to one unfortunate interaction.

There’s a brilliant TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that framed my perspective on a service trip with AMOS, a health outreach nonprofit in Nicaragua. In her wise, funny and reflective talk, Adichie warns of what it means to reduce anyone, or anywhere, to a one dimensional story:

“I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Nicaragua, had I never gotten an opportunity to visit on a service trip this May, might have been reduced to a single story in my head just like that.

As the day to add another stamp to my passport drew nearer, I became caught up in what was “wrong” in my eyes with this faraway place. I found new things to worry about every day. Morbidly, I even wondered if this trip might be something I’d never return from.

There were plenty of things for my brain to bother me with and to obsess over whenever I had a moment or two of idle time. The Zika virus. Contaminated water. Rabid dogs. Winding, muddy roads threading through mountain ranges. Earthquakes. These fears surged through my thoughts at breakneck speed. Sometimes, dread about leaving almost won out over my excitement.

There’s nothing imaginary about disease or natural disaster. It’s normal to feel afraid of those things. But what I feel ashamed about as I sit here two weeks after touching back down in the US is that I didn’t really anticipate all that is right with Nicaragua.

Consumed by my selfish worrying and sweeping generalizations, there were so many things I never knew I’d find there. I saw salsa dancers, effortlessly cool and smooth, dancing as though they could read their partners’ minds. Mountains rose and fell around us everywhere we went, a silent and steady presence that never became any less breathtaking. Some nights, the moon was bright enough for us to watch rolling mist clouds hide and unveil the mountains over and over, in a ghostly yet methodical way.

Luscious plants lined the dusty dirt roads, concealing sloths and hummingbirds in their leafy boughs. Children and adults alike patiently tolerated my mediocre Spanish, sticking with me until we reached the small thrill of understanding one another. We laughed over our awkwardness, resorting to hand gestures or bothering the bilingual team members for help when we had to.

The people I met in Nicaragua made up the most generous and resourceful communities I’d ever seen. They welcomed us into their lives, offering us everything from fresh eggs to washing our clothes to intricately decorated bowls. They are steadfast in their faith, posting Bible verses on thin wooden walls and vocalizing unwavering gratitude for everything they have. It was beautiful. They are beautiful.

When I returned to the States and told people where I’d been, I was often met with widened eyes. The first questions were usually about whether I’d been safe. “Danger” became their one and only story of Central America, of Nicaragua, just as it had been for me.

I would never want to minimize the hardships people experience in the developing world. There so many are real dangers, corrupt practices and injustices that they must confront in their daily life. But when violence, danger and poverty become the only impression of an entire country, we do the people within it a great disservice. We ignore the colors of their culture, diminish the triumphs of their progress and forget all the countless ways they are just like anybody else.

If I have learned anything this year, it is to never stop trying to find out what is right with developing countries, or any impoverished community for that matter. Conversely, I have learned that we must fiercely question the injustices and privilege that led to the things that are wrong within them.

We must read between the headlines, look past the history books and refuse to reduce someone else’s reality to a simple, singular story. But don’t just take my word for it. Adichie says this better than I ever could:

“I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”


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