Africa and the Single Story

By Joey Clavette

Earlier this semester we screened “Concerning Violence“. I wrote a little something about it here. But before the film I had also given a presentation on Africa which attempted to dispel a lot of myths about it. While this film which is set in Africa is about violence, it is imperative to know that Africa is much more than a land of violence. In an African history course I took I was made to sit down and actually write about this subject so I thought I’d share it here:

Kigali, Rwanda today

The word Africa comes from the Latin word Afri. Originally the name was meant to describe one tribe which the Romans had known from Libya. The term then came to be used to describe the entire expansive and diverse continent. This is an illustrative example from ancient Western culture to show how simplistic the Western view of Africa has been for a very long time.

In his work The Invention of Africa, philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe points out that African unity was not a concept on the continent before European contact. Blackness and Africanness are descriptions of an “Other”; as something different in such a way from Europeanness. Africans are described altogether by their relative difference to Europeans rather than their own characteristics. This results in a vast homogenization of Africans in the Western psyche, and we can clearly see that present today in what Chimamanda Adichie calls the ‘Single Story of Africa’.

One might hear a friend say “I’d like to go to Africa”, and when asked “where in Africa?” they might respond with dismay… “just Africa”. Africa to many people is thought of as a vast, wild (yet relative homogenous) landscape full of violent conflicts, diseases, poverty, safari animals and “black” people. This is how Africa is portrayed in popular media. This is the single story. The fact that there is more genetic diversity among the natives of Africa than there is among white Europeans is not important, they are simply “black”. The vast size of the African continent, the metropolitan areas, the ecological diversity, the more than 1500 unique languages, the stability, the health and the economic development are all glossed over and replaced with a single story.

This is not only the case in Africa. Westerners generally do not have a good idea of what is going on beyond their borders, and this form of exploitation is quite global. The African “single story” says a lot more about Western culture than it does about Africans.

The factors for this are many and go back thousands of years as we can see with the Afri example. Mudimbe’s work was influenced heavily by Edward Said’s work Orientalism which describes the same sort of phenomenon but towards the “Orient” instead of the African. Said’s work itself is based heavily on phenomenological philosophy, rooted in G.W. Hegel’s dialectical concept of the “Other” and its relation to the “self”. This phenomenon may very well be a natural part of the human experience generally. What is not natural, however, is to describe this Other in such specific and negative terms and this deserves explication.

It is true that there is poverty and violent strife in Africa to a much larger degree than anyone should be comfortable with. This is not the full story, however, and the full story cannot be grasped, as Adichie points out, by starting the narrative at famine and contemporary conflict. Africans entered popular European and American consciousness as slaves. For over four hundred years this was the case. Following the abolition of slavery, Europeans entered Africa as a paternalistic colonial force. Equipped with racist biblical interpretations, scientific racism and fire-power, Europeans invaded Africa in order to “civilize” it. Or in other words, to take what was an “Other” and assimilate it.

When the time came that the African nations had had enough and wanted independence, they faced Western resistance, often in extremely bloody conflicts with European powers. When they did win there would sometimes be covert operations, like those in the DRC, which had democratically elected leaders executed and replaced with Western-friendly dictators.1

Back to a form of indirect rule, the Western powers would exploit the free market to gain economic domination over states. They would take raw materials from Africa, as they had before, only this time under the guise of the Free Market in order to gain economic dominance. Security forces at European extraction zones worked as proxy-colonizers, hand in hand with bought militias. Apartheid only fell as late as 1994.

While acknowledging the part played by Western powers in the history of Africa is extremely important in order to dissolve the single story of Africa, it is obvious that the part played by Africans in African history must also be acknowledged. African civilization goes back thousands of years through numerous kingdoms and societies. They had architecture, music, writing, vast oral traditions, cuisine and general culture that was entirely their own. Through the processes of slavery and colonization Africans too expressed agency. Africans even appropriated the Western idea of “Africa” in order to use it against colonizers. Pan-Africanism was a helpful wedge to begin decolonization. Today most of the world’s fastest growing economies are in sub-saharan Africa. Their musical influence could not be stronger; there are poets, writers, philosophers and academics all shaping the world we live in today. Most importantly there are Africans enjoying African culture and lifestyles.

The single story in Africa in all likeliness will not completely disappear for some time. It is still very prominent in our media. While the single story has a negative effect on emigrants who need to deal with ignorant Westerners, and it may contribute to a lack of Western investment, Western culture also suffers from its own ignorance.


[1] I’m referring to Patrice Lumumba here. If you pick up any book written about him since the 80s it will likely have a detailed description of his assassination which the CIA took part in. It will also detail how Western powers (specifically America and Belgium) colluded to put Mobutu in power. Battleground Africa is a good book to read, or even the conclusion by the Belgian parliament about the situation.


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