Yesterday afternoon I sat in a small cafe in the Antananarivo Ivato Airport waiting for my return flight to my host community of Diego. Throughout lunch, myself and another volunteer who is serving near Fort Dauphin, listened to an American from Texas tell her friends about her extensive knowledge of what she eluded to as the country of Africa (which she was surely no longer in). She spoke of the continent of Africa as though it was one landmass, one people, one culture, one insignificant place on the map with just enough pretty and exotic animals to spend a week seeing and taking photos of, and then returning home to gush about what an adventure it had been. As volunteers living, working, worshipping and walking in community with the people of Madagascar, we cringed over and over again as she vindicated herself on how little she knew or cared about the country she was in or the people who lived here, nor did she have the desire to learn, as she was clearly already the foremost expert on everything African, having visited the island for less than a day.
From the time we are children, young, impressionable and vulnerable, we are sold a particular face and story of what Africa is, and what it means to be African. From books, magazines and other forms of media in the West, we are taught to believe that Africa is a sing story of utter catastrophe. In this singular, one-dimensional story, there is no possibility of Africans being similar to us, no possibility of having feelings toward those living in Africa as anything more complex than a patronizing, well-meaning pity, and surely no possibility of connection as human equals.
Africa is a place of immeasurable beauty of nature found in grassy savannas, tumbling waterfalls and exotic animals. It is a place of incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars over territory and power, dying of AIDS, and Malaria and Ebola and waiting for a kind white foreigner to donate their 25 cents a day and come and save them.
This is how you create a single story. You show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over and that is what they become.
The reality is that our trials undoubtedly contribute to who we are as people, but to insist that they are the only stories of our lives is to negate human experience and over look the many other things that form us. A single story is born and created in stereotypes, and the issue with stereotypes is not to say that they are untrue, but rather that they are not the whole truth. They make one story the only story.
Of course, Africa, like every other corner of the world, has it’s share of catastrophes. Countries like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo deal with intense political instability and incessant violence. South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland have the highest AIDS transmission rates in the world. And in my own host country of Madagascar, poverty is incessant despite the gems, woods and oil that could make it rich if foreigners didn’t strip them of it.
But there are other stories. These stories are not just about catastrophe, and it is just as, if not more, important to tell them.
The consequence of a single story is that it robs people of dignity. It creates barriers in understanding. It makes recognition of equal humanity between the West and the “developing nations” difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are the same.
It is difficult not to be confronted with the ways in which the Malagasy government has failed it’s people. Every single day I see failing infrastructure, poverty, the normalized sex tourism practices in my city, the politicians who’d rather line their own pockets than give money to the people. And yet, everyday I see the resilience of people who thrive here despite the government, rather than because of it.
It is for these reasons that I’ve decided to utilize my camera as a means to tell stories, to be a platform for cross-cultural understanding and truth telling. Over the course of the rest of my YAGM year, I hope to post the stories of the people of my community and those who I meet in Madagascar, who have already shown and done so much for me. I am deeply excited for this photo project and hope you will join me in reading some voices of Madagascar.
I’ll end with a quote from the author who inspired this photo project. I highly recommend her wildly popular TED Talk “the Danger of a Single Story.”
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to fracture and malign, but also to empower and humanize. Stories can break dignity, but also repair dignity.” -Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie