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The Danger of a Single Story

Years ago, at the height of the Boko Haram crisis in Abuja, a relative of mine parked his car by a corner shop and went…

Years ago, at the height of the Boko Haram crisis in Abuja, a relative of mine parked his car by a corner shop and went in to buy a sachet of ‘pure water’. Now, this relative of mine is a Kanuri man with loud facial tribal marks to prove it. His English and Hausa also bears the customary heavy accent of one who has spoken the Kanuri language all his life. When he greeted the young man in the shop and asked for water, he noticed the man stare at him strangely and suddenly disappeared to the back of the shop. A few minutes later, an older woman, his ‘madam’ came out and in a shaky voice asked what he wanted. He repeated that he just wanted to buy water and the woman who was physically shaking by now handed him the entire bag. He insisted that he only needed one piece to which she replied:

‘No problem Oga. Take everything. You no need pay sef. Just leave us alone’

With that, she ran back inside the shop and he was left standing outside his car with more water than he needed and even more annoying, that he did not pay for. He was bewildered.

To the woman in the shop, every Kanuri person was Boko Haram. Period!

Another time, I found myself in a similar situation. On transit in Frankfurt Airport, I realised that I needed somewhere to pray Zuhr and Asr. Everywhere was crowded with international travellers from all over the world and there was no quiet place. I bravely found a corner and spread my praying mat. While praying, my heart was beating crazily and I feared someone would scream and point ‘she has a bomb’ and I would be killed by crazy mob action. Fortunately, that was not the case. Apart from the few curious stares I got when I stood up and the woman whom I sat next to, shifting her frame a few inches away from me, lest I infect her with my ‘terrorism’, everyone else minded their business. I have never been more scared in my life.

During this Hajj period, I have seen a lot of rural Fulani people coming to the clinic. I am ashamed to say that along with a vast majority of Nigerians, I have come to associate the typical nomadic, thin, straight nosed Fulani men with tribal marks, with banditry and kidnapping. Whenever they come in speaking with their characteristic heavy accent, I get worried and think to myself- did they travel all this way to target us? Stories of how the nomadic Fulani men who pose as water vendors, shoe shiners and security men but in reality, are informants for the kidnappers have made me wary of my people.

On one of my encounters was with a man who complained of blisters on his foot. I tried to counsel him to take it easy with the walking. I encouraged him to take a taxi to the mosque and to rest at the hotel on some days.

‘Ina…..!’ He said ‘There is much work to be done’

‘Why? What type of work’ I asked.

He told that he and his fellow kinsmen spent every night in Tawaf, praying for their Land. He is from a village in Sokoto-Kebbi axis and every single night, they are besieged by bandits who raid their village. These men steal their cows, kidnap the men, sometimes even women and children and demand huge ransoms. They therefore decided to use this Hajj period to pray to God to bring an end to their nightmare. I looked at the Fulani man, with blisters on his feet from circumambulation around the house of Allah SWT and I was awash with shame.

I had fallen into the trap of thinking that all rural Fulani people are bandits.

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. She argues that inherent in the power of stories, is a danger—the danger of only knowing one story about a group. “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.” Adichie puts her speech in a nutshell stating that “to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they become”.

And that is the danger of hearing a single story over and over again.

We hear stories of Muslims bombing buildings, but we do not hear of the wonderful stories of them saving lives and helping IDPs and refugees. We hear stories of Kanuris being part of Boko Haram but do not hear stories of the wonderful philanthropic work my Kanuri neighbour has been doing for his community all his life. We hear stories of Fulani kidnapping people, raping women and killing children and forget that these people do not differentiate among their victims. They raid villages of their fellow Fulani kinsmen and kidnap them too. Meaning, they are victims too.

In her Ted Talk Adichie brings out two major points: on a micro-level, the danger of a single story is that it prevents people from authentically connecting with people as individuals. Instead of talking to my Kanuri uncle and engaging him in conversation to learn his perspective of the war in the north east, the shop owner already branded him as Boko Haram and lost money as a consequence. When we interact with people, we learn more about them, their history, their culture and become more exposed to other people’s ways of life. We hear their stories and realise that the single story we have heard all our lives, is in fact, incorrect.

On a macro-level, the issue is really about power: almost by definition, there are many stories about the dominant culture so the single-story threatens to create stereotypes that stick to groups that are already disempowered. For example: Igbo people are con-men. Yorubas are fetish and Yahoo Yahoo. Hausa people are illiterate, backward and unintelligent. Fulanis are kidnappers. And so on and so on.

This is the where the importance of storytelling comes in.

Because disease does not discriminate against race, gender or religion, I am opportune to see how it affects people and so can boldly say that humans, despite all that divides us, generally have similar characteristics. They are good people and they are evil ones. And this cuts across all tribes.

I am still ashamed that I allowed myself to be afraid of a tribe to which I belong. Let that not be your story.

As Chimammanda brilliantly puts 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.”