I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the dangers of the ‘single story’

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an absolutely brilliant and talented woman. Her novels are among my all time favourites and from the few video interviews and speeches I’ve heard her give, she seems to be a deeply insightful, engaging, bold and entertaining woman. I would love to meet her!

This talk about the ‘dangers of the single story’ is one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time. I think I tend a bit towards exaggeration and describe lots of things as ‘amazing’ and ‘thought-provoking’, but this speech truly is. I also think it provides an interesting perspective on ‘Otherness’ although Ms Adichie doesn’t comment on this concept directly. But she gives many examples from her own life experience, both of her own judgements of Others and the way others have judged her in turn, based on the ‘single story’. She draws on her own experience of the stories told about the poor, about Africans, about Americans, about immigrants – the over-generalized, narrow and often prejudicial narratives we tell about other people and other groups – to show the way in which these stories absolutely fail to capture reality and how these stories can cause harm, misunderstanding and rob others of their dignity.

This type of ‘single story telling’ is something we all do. We have all, at one time or another, been guilty of telling the single story and consequently of denying the dignity of our fellow humans. But if we can acknowledge the truth –  that there are in reality, many many stories – then there is hope of restoring that dignity.

It is certainly worth listening to the entire talk. I’ve shared a few ideas from the speech below, but it was a challenge picking out individual bits when all of the talk was so good. Please take the time to listen to the entire thing! You won’t be disappointed!

‘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.’

‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.Power is the ability, not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’

‘The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity.’

‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also be used to repair that broken dignity.’

‘When we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.’


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Authentic culture?

I’ve recently been writing about the theme of Otherness and in a couple of previous posts I mentioned the work of photographer Jimmy Nelson and his beautiful and thought-provoking Before They Pass Away photo documentation of the world’s last indigenous tribes.

As I’d hoped, my own reflections have sparked the beginnings of some interesting conversation on Otherness! I hope it continues because it is a fascinating topic and one that is incredibly relevant in our increasingly inter-connected and globalized world.

One idea I’ve seen crop up a couple of times now is that of authenticity. Both Jimmy Nelson, in his TED talk and other writings, as well as a friend of mine, have commented on the fact that tribal societies have an authenticity that we in the developed world have lost. Their cultures are more authentic than ours, and consequently their lives seem to be more meaningful.

I find this to be an interesting concept – one worth discussing and defining further.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘authentic’ in the context of cultures?

I, for one, take it to mean something that is ‘real’, ‘not a copy,’ ‘genuine’, perhaps also the opposite of ‘fake’.

So, is it accurate to say that tribal cultures are more ‘real’ than developed, first-world cultures? For example, is US culture or British culture or Japanese culture less ‘authentic’, meaning ‘less real’, ‘less genuine’, ‘more fake’?

I am coming from a Western perspective myself, and I think may of us in the West look to cultures around the world – particularly in developing countries, and perhaps most especially in tribal cultures – as being more authentic and a sort of remnant of an idealized past that we can no longer access in modern North America and Western Europe. But if that is the case, then when did North American and Western European cultures cease to be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’? How could we define the shift from authentic to inauthentic when discussing the history and culture of the West?

Maasai family - authentic culture?

Maasai family – authentic culture?

tv family

1950s American family – inauthentic culture?

My first thought in response to these questions is that we may consider Western culture as being less authentic because we see so much of our culture being heavily influenced by modern materialism, advertising and marketing, by machines, industry, and all sorts of advanced technology. Most of us watch TV, we drive cars, we eat processed food, we might not spend much time in nature, probably don’t grow our own food or raise farm animals. There are chemicals and preservatives in much of what we eat. Because of these characteristics of our Western modern culture, we may feel we live in a more ‘artificial’ and ‘less authentic’ way.

A friend of mine wrote an interesting comment to some of my previous questions about why we are attracted to images and information about Others, particularly those who live in tribal societies. Here she mentions the view that tribal cultures are more authentic as a reason why we are interested in Others. Now I’ll let her speak for herself and quote her in full here:

Personally I think [we are interested in learning about Others because of] the desire for meaning and seeing worlds where things are made by hands. We have destroyed our connection to every aspect of living. We don’t make things, our tools, our food… even the milk westerners feed their babies is a powdered manufactured chemical. We don’t go on hikes, we watch strangers hiking on TV. To see people who have meaning and authenticity in the things they do, the way they dress… it’s become the stuff of legend in the west. It’s loved and loathed equally. If I knit a hat from fiber I spun myself people are either amazed or they laugh and say ‘why? Go to Walmart and buy a hat for a dollar!” We live in a manufactured meaningless world, we look at these cultures with a desperate longing like an orphan sees a complete family (functional or not).

I have so much more to say on this topic, but it certainly won’t fit all into one blog post. So, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider instead.

How do we define what is ‘authentic’ in human culture? What do we consider to be the essential elements of a true and meaningful culture?

Is it true and fair to say that modern Western cultures are no longer authentic?

Is it true that tribal cultures are essentially different from developed world cultures, or are all humans everywhere just doing the same sorts of things, albeit in different ways, and with different materials, in both tribal and developed-world cultures?

Have modern cultures irreparably lost something essential, or are the elements of tribal cultures that we value still available to us in our modern lifestyle?

Is it possible to fully live in the modern, technologically advanced, increasingly urbanized world and still have an ‘authentic’ culture?

If you’d like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

*NOTE: I find it difficult to chose terminology to use when discussing a topic like this. How do we chose between terms like ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘traditional’ to describe cultures? I feel like all are a bit inadequate, and also are loaded with stereotypes, value judgement and assumptions – and they probably also have different meanings for different people. The problem is the same with trying to write about the ‘opposite’ of tribal cultures – we can use terms like ‘developed” or ‘first-world’ (as opposed to ‘developing’ or ‘third world’), or we can talk about ‘modern’ cultures (although in reality, any tribal society in existence today is also ‘modern’ and has been evolving just as long as any other non-tribal culture!). And here I also talk about Western culture as being sort of synonymous with ‘modern’ or ‘developed’, but obviously, there are many other countries that are modern and developed but not Western, such as Japan and South Korea, just to name a few. So, I’d just like to point out the flaws in my own use of terminology and bring up the fact that all the terms we use to discuss cultures in this way are loaded with biases, generalizations and assumptions. I’m just trying to do the best I can to be understood while discussing an incredibly complex topic, so please forgive my shortcomings!


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One more step towards global eradication of polio

‘If a country’s population could give a sigh of relief, the sound from India on Jan 13, 2014, would have been deafening. On that day, India celebrated 3 years without a single case of polio caused by the wild polio virus, thereby meeting WHO’s criterion for polio-free certification and becoming the last of the 11 countries of WHO’s South-East Asia Region to do so. On March 27, 2014, a meeting in New Delhi of the regional Certification Commission is expected to declare polio officially eradicated from the entire region, which will then join the three other polio-free WHO regions—of the Americas, Western Pacific, and Europe—leaving Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to finish the job and cast the polio virus into the same chapter of history as the smallpox virus.’

To read more about global efforts to eliminate polio and the current obstacles to reaching that goal, read the whole article at The Lancet.


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Set the people free!

As it turns out, 16 March was Open Borders DayAlex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution sums up the point of this day nicely:

‘[Open Borders Day is] a day to celebrate the right to emigrate and the right to immigrate; to peacefully move from place to place. It is a day worth celebrating everywhere both for what has been done already and for the tremendous gains in human welfare that can but are yet to be achieved. It is also a day to reflect on the moral inconsistency that says “No one can be denied equal employment opportunity because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent” and yet at the same time places heavily armed guards at the border to capture, imprison, turn back and sometimes kill immigrants.’

I’m obviously a bit behind in commenting here, but better late than never!

The issue of immigration is a big one for me, partially for personal reasons, but for much larger ethical and moral reasons as well. I myself am someone NOT living in my country of birth, which I suppose makes me an immigrant. I don’t often think of myself that way though, probably in large part because a) I am white, b) I am a US citizen, and c) I have a university education – in other words, I come from a very privileged background. I don’t fit the ‘immigrant stereotype’. I didn’t leave my home country to escape poor living conditions or lack of economic opportunity. And because I am white, educated and American, I get preferential treatment when it comes to living and working abroad, although there are still limitations regarding my rights to live and work where I choose.

However, most people on the planet who would like to live and work in a country other than the one they were born in face far greater challenges that I can even imagine. They want to better their lives, earn a decent living, provide for their families, give their children the opportunity to gain an education and a better standard of living. They want to escape poverty, economic stagnation and hopelessness. They want to contribute to society. They want stability, safety, to have adequate food, water and shelter. They want to be treated like people, to be respected as humans, to make choices about their own lives.

I’ve done a bit of browsing around the Open Borders website and I am so impressed with this informative and well-balanced project. The site addresses a huge number of different objections people voice against immigration and the concept of open borders, where, in theory, people would have a much greater degree of freedom to migrate than in the current world order. They look at a wide variety of arguments for and against open borders – political, ethical, theoretical, economic, etc. – and discuss in a very detailed and nuanced way the real-world implications of free movement of people. If you are looking for fact-based and balanced information and discussion of immigration issues, this looks like a great place to start.

I highly recommend exploring this site. There is so much to think about here!

As part of my on-going reflections on Otherness, I look forward to returning to the themes and ideas explored in Open Borders. More coming soon…


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Things we take for granted

In developed countries, we completely take for granted the fact that we have cheap and easy access to clean drinking water.

According to Water.org:

  •  3.4 million people die each year from water related diseases.
  • A child dies from water related illness every 21 seconds!

It’s hard to believe that something so essential for a healthy life, something we have at our fingertips with just a quick turn of a tap, is a precious commodity that is inaccessible to so many people around the world.

water

A friend brought my attention to this interesting invention that might make clean drinking water available to more people in developing countries. It is a handheld filtration system capable of filtering out both dirt and  illness-causing microbes. It looks like a handy and easy to use device that could make a difference to many people.

For more about the LifeStraw, click here and here.

Water.org also has a similar product, the CamelBak Groove bottle.

However, that’s not the whole solution to the world’s water problem. Communities also need the actual physical access to water, education about good hygiene practices, local community members who are trained to maintain the water and sanitation equipment, and the involvement of all community members taking ownership of the project, volunteering time and effort to construct and maintain such a system. All these together have the potential to drastically improve lives and prevent unnecessary deaths around the world.

For more information about the global water crisis and ways you can help, Water.org looks like a good place to start. Please leave a comment and share if you know of any other similar programs or organizations! I’d love to hear about them!