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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I thought this was a story about white people!

For thousands upon thousands of years, with a few exceptions, Europeans stayed in Europe, Africans in Africa, Asians in Asia, etc. The journey of Cristóbal Colón (a.k.a. Christopher Columbus) to the New World changed all that forever.

His voyages set off a complete reshuffling of the human population around the globe, and this movement was dominated by the African slave trade. According to Charles Mann’s epic book 1493, around 11.7 million captive Africans were shipped to the Americas between 1500 and 1840 – the ‘heyday of the slave trade’. In comparison, during the same period, around 3.4 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. That’s about 3 Africans for every 1 European!

I’ll quote Mann at length here because he says it better than I could anyway!

‘The implications of these figures are as staggering as their size. Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians – tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn’t controlled by Indians. Demographically speaking … America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century.’

‘In the three centuries after Colón , migrants from across the Atlantic created new cities and filled them with houses, churches, taverns, warehouses, and stables. They cleared forests, planted fields, laid out roads, and tended horses, cattle and sheep – animals that had not walked the Americas before. They stripped forests to build boats and powered mills with rivers and waged war on other newcomers. Along the way, they collectively reworked and reshaped the American landscape, creating a new world that was an ecological and cultural mix of old and new and something else besides.’

‘This great transformation, a turning point in the story of our species, was wrought largely by African hands. The crowds thronging the streets in the new cities were mainly African crowds. The farmers growing rice and wheat in the new farms were mainly African farmers. The people rowing boats on rivers, then the most important highways, were mainly African people. The men and women on the ships and in the battles and around the mills were mainly African men and women. Slavery was the foundational institution of the modern Americas.’

‘Two migrations from Africa were turning points in the spread of Homo sapiens around the globe. The first was humankind’s original departure, seventy thousand years ago or more, from its homeland in Africa’s eastern plains. The second was the transatlantic slave trade.’

~ Charles C Mann | 1493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth | pages 286-287

This completely changes the way I understand the history of colonization in the Americas. Coming from the US, the view we have is of an immigration story dominated by white Europeans, with some Africans and a tiny scattering of Asians, and of course, a few native Americans lurking on the fringes. Now all that seems like a complete misrepresentation of reality. It’s a clear example of how power dynamics drastically change the way history is recorded, taught and interpreted. White people dominated the political and economic sphere, so they were the ones who wrote the American story… a story centred around them; a story in which brown and black people were marginal characters, side-notes in history, the supporting actors in an epic white drama.

But it appears that the story of the centuries following Columbus’s journey to the Americas were much different than I was taught. While the living and working conditions that Africans (as well as Native Americans) suffered under in the Americas were truly horrendous, they made a huge and indelible mark on the New World, despite everything. Many of them went through hell on earth, but the world I come from (speaking as an American) was to a large degree shaped by those African men and women. It is strange to think of the contrast between the way most of us in the US are taught about the history of Africans in America and what the reality of the situation was. We are taught about Africans as a ‘minority’, as an outside group on the edge of mainstream white society, slowly and painstakingly making their way closer to the centre, towards equality. They are a part of the population many white Americans only recognize on certain days of the year or during Black History Month, or only read about in supplementary chapters in school textbooks. We completely overlook the fact that for hundreds of years, they were actually a majority, and while oppressed, managed to shape the New World that white people like me, and people of all races and ethnicities, now live in.

In an upcoming post, I’ll share more I’ve learned from Charles Mann’s 1493, about communities of Africans who fought for and gained freedom from slavery on their own terms – those who resisted and won against the oppression of white slave societies in both North and South America. It’s incredible stuff, a side of American history I’d never learned about until recently, and it’s been a real eye-opening experience.

More coming soon…!


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Everybody wants a piece of King Tut

I came across this interesting and incredibly well-woven article about King Tutankhamun and the quest to figure out his bloodline and ethnic origins, and all the pit-falls, road-blocks and challenges those studying this ancient king have dealt with along the way.

Here’s a true story intertwining ancient history, biblical mythology, cutting-edge technology, Mormons, British colonial history, genetics, Egyptian revolution, forensics, international politics… this story’s got it all!

If you have any interest in Egyptology, or just love a well-told tale, this is definitely worth a read!

Tutankhamun’s Blood: Why everyone from the Mormons to the Muslim Brotherhood is desperate for a piece of the Pharaoh | MEDIUM


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Green honey, violet sheep and wine-coloured seas… but no blue sky? (thoughts on culture, language and colour )

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How do culture and language effect the way we see and interpret colour? What is the ‘true’ colour of the world around us?

We take for granted that colour is ‘real’, an observable, definable, and objective part of our world. The grass is green and the sky is blue… or are they?

The ancient Greek poet Homer, author of the great epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, described the sea as being the colour of wine, sheep as violet and honey as green, along with many other seemingly strange colour descriptions… and there was no mention of the colour blue in his works at all. This fascinating RADIOLAB podcast delves into the discovery of Homer’s strange world of colour, and the language of colour in cultures past and present.

I find this story particularly interesting because the Iliad and Odyssey are some of my favourite stories of all time. One of my sons is even named after the hero Odysseus (that’s how much I love these stories!), and I’ve visited the ruins of ancient Troy and swam in the very sea that Homer describes in his epic poems. It’s strange and wonderful to have looked over the plains of Troy and the waves of the Aegean sea, to have stood under the same scorching summer sky, just as Homer must have done thousands of years ago, and yet know that we would describe that natural world so differently.

Listen to the podcast here:

RADIOLAB: Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?

Wine-coloured sea? Blue sky? On the Aegean sea, not far from Troy (Truva).

Wine-coloured sea? Blue sky? On the Aegean sea, not far from Troy (Truva).