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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Things we take for granted

Having grown up in the 20th Century, in a rich, developed country, Tuberculosis (TB) is not something I ever even thought to worry about. I was vaccinated against this disease as a baby, and never really heard anything about it, except when reading classic novels by Dickens or the like, which were written in a time when people still died of ‘consumption’ in Western countries.

TB vaccines are still standard issue for babies in developed countries, as far as I know. Again, it’s just something most babies are vaccinated against and then the rest of us in the rich world have the luxury of forgetting this illness even exists.

However, in other parts of the world, TB is still a deadly killer, responsible for 1.5 million yearly deaths worldwide. It ranks right behind HIV in terms deadly infectious illnesses.

According to this article from the Guardian, since TB was eradicated in rich countries around the middle of the 20th Century, people stopped caring about this disease or the treatment of it. In that time, new treatment-resistant strains of TB have evolved and these new strains now pose an extremely deadly threat. Not only that, but the current treatments for TB take about two years, are seriously painful and some can cause deafness or psychotic episodes… all with no guarantee of curing the illness.

I found this article quite shocking and it is so tragic that a disease eradicated in rich Western countries still kills so many people worldwide, and since those people are poor and living in developed countries, their plight is largely overlooked.

The things we take for granted, indeed.

Read the whole article here:

Tuberculosis is an old disease with a new face – and it needs to be stopped | THE GUARDIAN

 When rich countries eradicated TB, new treatments dried up. Now the disease has evolved to become drug-resistant – and it’s the world’s poorest people who are bearing the brunt


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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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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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Mirrors in which we see our true selves – reflections on Otherness

In a previous post, I shared a TED Talk given by photographer Jimmy Nelson, creator of the Before They Pass Away project. This stunning photo collection documents 29 of the world’s last indigenous tribes. The photos themselves are amazingly beautiful and highly artistic, capturing iconic images of indigenous peoples and the landscapes where they live throughout the world.

These cultures are under threat from the encroaching modern world, and this ambitious project is one man’s attempt to not only document their existence, but to spark conversation about the diversity of human culture and the preservation of these last tribal cultures.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Image by Jimmy Nelson, beforethey.com.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Photo by Jimmy Nelson at http://www.beforethey.com

As I looked through the photos and read the captions about each tribe I found myself wondering what it is that interests us about these Others. What do we find so enticing about these images of distant and exotic foreigners? Is it simple curiosity? A desire to learn? Is it a craving for something new, a search for novelty?

It seems that interest in such exotic Others often leads us in one of two different directions.

In the first, we can be fascinated by difference because we see it as something strange, freakish, frightening and yet at the same time tantalizing. There is something dangerous about these Others, something taboo about the way they live. Perhaps by looking at their images and reading descriptions about their customs, religion or beliefs, we can vicariously experience an alternative to our own culture, albeit in a safe, controlled and distant way.

When we approach the Other in this way – as an oddity, as one who defies our sense of what is normal and acceptable – perhaps our response is one of self-affirmation. We see the strangeness of this Other, the backwardness of his (or her) ways, the perversions of his culture, his ignorance of proper morality, and it makes us feel more secure in the fortress of our own worldview and way of life. We can feel smug and self-satisfied because our way is superior, and we can thank our lucky stars that, at the end of the day, no matter our personal or cultural flaws, at least we don’t live like those Other people. Our ego and sense of self is re-affirmed and we can happily go on with our lives.

Alternately, we can approach the Other in a more positive way. We can admire the Other’s beauty, their interesting clothing and appearance. We can see valuable aspects of their spirituality; their simpler, less materialistic way of life; their close community ties; their deeper connection to nature. We may view the Other’s culture as more authentic, more innocent, less corrupted by the negative influences of modernity. We may see them through the lens of nostalgia, as remnants of the past, historical relics from the proverbial garden of Eden. By learning about these Others and their way of life, we express our longing to escape the complications and restraints of modern life, our desire to return to a state of childlike innocence and simplicity.

Unfortunately, neither of these views does the Other justice. Both are too narrow and simplistic. Any single culture is so complex that to truly understand it could take an outsider a lifetime of study, and would require living within the culture itself, among the people being studied. Even then, we would still see the Other through the filter of our own culture, our own biases and way of life.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to learn about those who are different from us. It just means we must be realistic in our expectations, realize the limitations of our own understanding and remain constantly vigilant against our tendency to oversimplify, to make hasty judgements, to create false comparisons. The path toward truly understanding the Other is fraught with intellectual, moral and philosophical pitfalls, and we must be careful how we tread.

So, if we cannot hope to get a very accurate understanding of these distant Others from photos and books – from our gazing at a distance – what is it we hope to gain from the experience of looking and reading? What is our goal?

Perhaps it is an opportunity to be shocked out of our complacency. By seeing images so starkly different, we are shaken out of our usual dullness. We are forced to look deeply, to pay attention. It is hard for us to look away. We begin to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. Things are turned upside-down. The ground feels different beneath our feet and the air tastes different when we imagine the roads that the Other walks on and the bright empty sky that hangs above the his head.

And then…

We begin to ask questions.

First, if we are brave, we may ask what makes this Other tick. How does he feel? What does he truly believe? What does he love? What does he fear? What are his desires? How does he interpret the world and his place in it? How does he create meaning in the experiences of this life?

While we can ponder these questions, we cannot really answer those questions about or for the Other. That is something only he can do.

And so, if we are even braver, we then begin to ask those questions of ourselves. We realise that we too are an Other in someone else’s eyes. Our culture, way of life, beliefs – none of these are to be taken for granted. There are countless ways to be human, and our way is just one of many. 

Perhaps that is why we feel such an irresistible pull towards the Other, why we seek these encounters with those who are distant and different. They offer us something immensely valuable – a mirror in which we can more clearly see our true selves.

*  *  *

To learn more about the Before They Pass Away project and to view the amazing photos of indigenous societies around the world, click here.

To visit the Before They Pass Away Facebook page, click here.

To read the first part of my ongoing series on Meeting the Other, click here.

To watch Jimmy Nelson’s TED Talk, click here.


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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…