One of our assignments this week was to watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. Though I’ve watched it a couple of times before, I watched it again because it’s Just. That. Good. Adichie starts the talk by sharing experiences she’s had, being an African in America. She talks about her college roommate’s preconceptions of her (“she did not think I would know how to use a stove”), and also of her own conception of poorer people in her own country (“I did not know they could also make beautiful things”). She goes on to talk about how dangerous it is to have a “single story” of any person, people group, country—or even of oneself. When we flatten people to a single story, we miss out on all of the richness that person has to offer. When we believe we understand a person because we know one thing about them, we can, instead, end up in entirely the wrong place altogether.
This morning, we visited an extremely poor community on the outskirts of San José, Costa Rica. Made up primarily of immigrants (refugees, we might say) from Nicaragua, none of the 50,000 persons who live in this area own the land they’re living on. Too poor to buy a house, too endangered in their home country to stay, these people have built themselves shelters on the banks of the rivers on land which belongs to the government. Due to the location, their homes are extremely susceptible to destruction by mudslide. This community has grown to include the land between the rivers and a lot of other areas that are also owned by the government. Though they are an established community four times the size of the city I live in back in the United States, the government could choose to evict them at any moment, and they would have nowhere to live again, and no recourse.
This is one story. It’s a true story.
Nearly 50,000 Nicaraguans, seeking a safe place to raise their children, have escaped from the danger of an unstable, militarized country and settled in a country which makes no provision for their healthcare, employment or housing. Being helped by no-one, they found un-used land and built houses for themselves there, in spite of the constant danger of unstable land: earth-quakes, volcanoes and mudslides. Constantly seeking work, the people of this community have collected discarded building materials and used them to improve their homes even though they know these homes could be taken from them at any moment. Each time a person manages to find employment (probably under-paid, because of their immigration status), they invest in improving their new home and making space for more members of their family to escape from the dangers of their home countries and also find a new life in Costa Rica. Within these “temporary”, unsanctioned communities, individuals have built and started businesses, improved their homes until they are indistinguishable from any other home in Costa Rica, and created a system in which fresh fruits and vegetables are for sale even in the most difficult areas, an accomplishment which puts the United States’ food-desert laden cities to shame. Some of these Nicaraguans have taken advantage of opportunities to learn skills and even become International Montessori Guides, able to lead a Montessori school within the community, for children who live in these “slums”. Under the most difficult circumstances, these people are creating living spaces for themselves, learning and growing, and seeking new and better opportunities for their children.
This is another story. It is also true.
Narratives are important. Sometimes, I think they are the only thing that’s really important in this world where a preponderance of single-story narratives lead to assumptions, misunderstandings, lack of empathy, conflicts, and even war. If you begin to think you know all about a person, a community or a nation, think again. If everyone around you, or your news source, is telling you the same single story about someone or some situation, ask yourself what other stories might also be true. Go looking for other narratives. You might be amazed what you’ll find. It might change your life. It might save someone else’s life.