Spoiler alert: this post gives away the end of an episode of House. You might want to stop here if you’re a fan and are not caught up on Season 6.
I’m sure most people have seen Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk by now. Here’s a link to it, just in case you happen to be the one person who has no idea what I’m referring to. I think the speech is wonderful in its completeness and I wasn’t going to make a post about it because so many other people had done so and I didn’t think I had anything else to add.
However, many things I’ve encountered since then have brought the usefulness of this talk to mind. Anyone who’s read a few posts here would quickly realise that I love a good story. Maybe that’s why so many of my posts have been about films. The concept of the single story explains what I find so dissatisfying about most representations of Africa and Africans that I come across. In movies, news and conversations with people both virtual and real, one story about Africans prevails and you cannot tell these people anything different. They seem to think they are absolutely correct in defining Africa by the story they have and if you challenge them you risk being called a liar, accused of being in denial or worse, accused of defending wrong doing.
I watched a recent episode of House that had me cringing throughout. It featured an ‘African dictator’ who ends up in the care of House’s team. The episode was about the different responses of these doctors to the moral question of how to treat this man who was certain to go back to oppressing people in his country if he survived.
From the first mention of the African dictator, I knew I was going to have a problem with the way the story unfolded. The most obvious one being that the only time House has seen fit to tell a story about Africans, the writers chose the tried and tested dictator story. Secondly, though there was some suggestion that the story was based on Rwanda they didn’t even bother to specify which African country it was about*. Neglecting to name a country suggested to me that the writers didn’t think it mattered; as if the African dictator is a character in his own right such that once he is mentioned, everyone is supposed to know what they are trying to convey. After all, we all know that ‘Africa’ is in a civil war and there all these horrible dictator people there.
Two of the doctors seemed to believe that it was their duty to save the Africans from this dictator. In the end when Chase kills the man by allowing his colleague to give treatment based on a wrong diagnosis, it seems clear that the fate of the Africans really wasn’t a factor in his decision. He was more motivated by the desire to punish the man for attacking his wife. Yet when it came time to explain himself, his justification was the benefit of his action to the Africans.
The thing I found most irritating though was how the story actually turned out to be about the doctors themselves. The African dictator and his victims were all just a background to showcase the moral dilemma these medics faced as they struggled to do the right thing. This was what brought Chimamanda’s point about single stories and power to mind. She talked about the power to determine who speaks and what is said, the power to determine what purpose a story serves, the power to create and maintain stereotypes. This power was exercised in this story to reduce the lives of the Africans to little more than a tool for testing the ethics and professionalism of House’s team.
Now, we cannot compel the writers of House or any other show to exercise their power in a way that portrays us in a more complete way but fortunately, we can also put our own stories out there. Whether they will have an audience is a different matter entirely but Chimamanda’s speech reminds me that we will only be able to counter the single story if more of us speak out.
* This is based on the reference to inyenzi, a term used to describe Tutsis during the genocide. It means cockroaches.
PS: I find it difficult to take lists such as the 10 Most beautiful women in the world, most stylish women in the world, most eligible bachelors in the world e.t.c. seriously at all. Whoever compiles these lists really needs a geography lesson because they seem to think that the world consists of America, Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If they’re feeling very generous they may even go as far as South Africa or a less well known European state. Somehow it seems to escape their notice that they have cut out many continents from their definition of ‘world’. Of course everyone is free to consider whoever they like beautiful. I just object to them claiming to speak for the world when they do so.