My case against the celebration of the birth of a ‘royal child’

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A few months ago, Kenyans shouted themselves hoarse telling the West to keep off their politics and let them face the consequences of their choices. The defiance was confirmed by the election of Uhuru Kenyatta and William into power. I personally do not subscribe to the school of thought of having the West play patron to every issue in other parts of the world that are considered less developed. What irks me most is to see the same people that make hue and cry against the West during elections pay homage to Western culture and traditions to such levels that will leave citizens of the same Western countries amazed.

The last few days have been abuzz with the news that the Duchess of Cambridge was about to give birth to a ‘royal baby. He has been named Prince George Alexander Louis. I am not certain about the last two names; they may be alluding to Alexander the Great and Louis XVI, who knows? I don’t really know what being a ‘royal child’ is but I believe I am one by choice and I can take that to the bank. I am special in my own way and I believe we all are. We should not confine ourselves to a claustrophobic view of life to such an extent that we look down upon our cultures and traditions for those from the West.

I was old enough to witness the painful divorce between Prince Charles and Princess Diana on 28 August 1996. I was also old enough to watch Diana’s requiem mass on T.V in 1997 exactly a year after the divorce. I have grown up hating the fact that we are still stuck in anachronism forgetting that we fought for independence to rid ourselves of imperialism and let the sun set on the British Empire. That we are awed by royal names, royal weddings and births at this time and age leaves a lot to be desired. This is a clear manifestation of the ‘colonisation’ of the mind that Ngugi wa Thiong’o exhorts us to unshackle ourselves from. The fact that Kenya still marketed itself as a choice destination for tourists from Europe on the basis that Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in Kenya confirms that we have a long way to go as far as decolonisation of the mind is concerned.

So here comes Prince George Alexander Louis and we were the first on the line heaping congratulatory messages on the ‘royal couple’. This must be embarrassing to the Mau Mau veterans who just the other day received alms for compensation for the atrocities that the ‘royals’ in their ‘gulags’ of Manyani, Kapenguria, Maralal etc. inflicted on them for fighting for our freedom. I am not against the British and their traditions but I am against imperialism. We didn’t lower the union jack physically only for us to raise it ‘proudly’ in our hearts fifty years after independence.  We should be proud of being Africans and uphold our traditions to such a level as to make other cultures green with envy.

How can we undergo a cultural revolution if all our ways are still imperial? We take pride in drinking ‘foreign coffee’; paying a fortune for a cup of espresso and cappuccino and ignoring our own Ketepa. We eat American hamburgers, pizza and Harland Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken as a mark of class and affluence and look down upon our own ‘ingokho’ and ‘managu’. We are excited and glued to Mexican telenovelas at the expense of ‘Papa Shirandula’ and ‘Beba Beba’ and listen to Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta” and distance ourselves from Jacob Luseno’s ‘mukangala’ since it will brand us as uncultured and out of ‘class and style’. We fake our accidents just to sound upmarket and an American twang here and a London cockney there is a grand chance to show how well travelled we are. To put emphasis on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s words, “English is not an African language”.

We seek to be a middle income nation by 2030 and this does not come on a silver platter. We must have our own culture, traditions and customs. Being awed at a ‘royal couple’ in the 21st century is totally uncalled for. China underwent its cultural revolution in the 1950s to be where it is today. We must take charge of our future and culture for us to be where we want to be. When the Americans on December 16, 1773 threw chests of tea off a ship bound for England in the famous ‘Boston Tea Party’, they did so to do away with imperialism for good. They have even had to tamper with the ‘King’s/Queen’s language’ to bring on board ‘honor’, ‘fall’ for autumn, restrooms etc. to prove their dislike for ‘royalty’. We ought to create a Kenyan identity for us to call ourselves Kenyans.

To all those still celebrating the birth of a ‘royal child’, Mark Twain’s words in “Letters from a Dog to Another Explaining and Accounting for Man” are sufficient to express my angst. “A royal ‘right’ stolen five hundred years ago is called a ‘divine’ right to-day. God himself is made a conspirator, an accessory to the left”. I am proud of being Kenyan and African and royal in my own right.

 

 

How to Write About Africa- Binyavanga Wainaina

 

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Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

 

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

 

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

 

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

 

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

 

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

 

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

 

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.

 

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

 

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

 

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

 

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

 

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

 

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

 

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care. ■

CREATING THE FUTURE WE WANT

Future begins with the vision we hold now. What kind of future do you wish to create for yourself and the world? Please share your dream and ideas for making it a reality.

Okay, This is an essay I submitted to the 2012 Goi Peace Foundation and UNESCO International Essay Contest for Young People and I believe the ideas herein are worth sharing with you.

A PACIFIED, EDUCATED AND GREEN FUTURE”
Take a mental flight to 2150 C.E. You are promenading across the French City of Paris. The Louvre Museum is in ruins, half the height of the Eiffel Tower has been blown away following a resurgence of a world war and the Notre Dame Cathedral is no more. On the other hand, take a mental flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2150 C.E. The Civil war is over, homes all over the country are being lit by power from green energy sources, every home is supplied with clean water, the youth, women and the girl children are given equal opportunities in education and leadership, the jungle is teeming with wildlife including the presently endangered mountain gorilla and the Foreign Policy magazine has declared it the most peaceful and prosperous country on Earth. I guess we would all wish to live in that Congo instead of Paris. That world is possible if we choose to create it today. This is how we can:

Global climate change conferences are very emotive whenever held. We are living in a world where the hazards of climate change are as sure as death, all this as a result of pollution. We can evade the ravages of climate change if we only become pragmatic enough and adopt green energy solutions. An education that will encourage the development and take up of wind, hydro and solar energy in place of fossil fuel will create a pollution-free future. Wind farmWe can create such a future if we resolve to establish wind energy farms, use public means of transport in place of personal vehicles in our cities where traffic gridlock not only wastes productive time but also increases the levels of carbon emission, resolve to plant more trees and save surviving forests by reading our books, magazines and newspapers on electronic media in place of paper.

peacePeace and tranquility are a recipe for a harmonious world; a world where I will be able to walk through the volatile streets of the cities in Afghanistan or Iraq without a bullet-proof vest or armoured vehicle. Pessimists may dismiss this but it is possible if we preach tolerance and harmony and fill the chasms that separate us with love where hatred and bigotry is preached, olive branches where guns are raised against us and knowledge where ignorance is feigned. We can create that world if we learn to appreciate the beliefs of the neighbour next door and instead of demonizing each other, take each other as the children of one God whether Hindu, Christian, and Muslim or Buddhist by embracing a spirit of fraternity and camaraderie.

A world that forgets its past has no future because the past is a mirror to reflect upon and unlearn our mistakes and improve on our achievements, to create a lustrous tomorrow. It is therefore imperative that we preserve our heritage and create a world where the Pyramids of Giza are preserved, the Pagodas of Beijing’s Forbidden City are left intact and the ruins of the Aztec temples are not desecrated.
Pagoda
If we control our hunger for modernization and adopt legislative measures that will protect these sites, we will be able to leave for the posterity a piece of our history. Modernization without regard for the past has played a negative role in the destruction of these sites. Old is gold and the only way of preserving this ‘gold’ is by allowing modernity to live side by side with antiquity where these sites are preserved and at the same time allowing modern development.

Education, poverty and corruption are like three sides of the same coin. They are intertwined in the sense that a lack of education often leads to poverty and corruption is often the source of poverty and vice versa. Religious, racial and ethnic bigots often take advantage of poverty and little education to dogmatize their followers into violence. It is therefore through education that we can overcome poverty and create responsible citizenry. A world where education is free and available to all can be possible if the spending on military advances by countries can be diverted into peaceful ventures such as provision of education. An education where learners will be taught and cultured to appreciate hard work and earning an honest living instead of looting public coffers will go a great length in reducing corruption. Where corruption is reduced, funds will be available to fund education, provide venture capital for young entrepreneurs, and develop the poor areas of the world with provision of electricity, roads and provision of clean water sources. A world without poverty will lead to better living standards, an educated population, reduced mortality rates, reduced violence and cities without slums.
That is the world I want to create for the posterity.

IGNORANCE AND STEREOTYPES

I love comedy…

I am a great fan of Russell Peters and I pretty much love the way he makes fun of his Indian parents and their clumsiness. Russell Peters is one guy whose comedy heavily relies on racial and ethnic stereotypes. I am not against such stereotypes but one thing that I loathe about stereotypes is that they rely a lot on ignorance. People will talk ill of the Chinese because of the ignorant facts that they have about them. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, it is a ‘danger of a single story’.

This brings into mind the stereotypes that Americans have about the rest of the world. It is true that Americans are way ahead of many in terms of technological advancement but it must be remembered that Americans are one ignorant bunch of people. When Sarah Palin gaffes and says that Africa is a country, we should not jump quickly into conclusions to accuse her of being a ‘blonde’ whatever the meaning this word has acquired but we should appreciate that the background she grew up in Alaska made her to have a very claustrophobic world view where everything is American over and over.

Here is a satirical world map that best extrapolates the American ignorance. SubSaharan Africa is an AIDS ravaged country and dirty porn is manufactured in Germany. China is one big supermarket and Spain and Portugal are Mexico and Brazil respectively. Now that is what I call the epitome of ignorance and it is what forms the main fodder for stereotypes.

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The Danger of a SIngle Story- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

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Chimamanda herself

 

I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.” I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (Laughter) Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. (Laughter) And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Things changed when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available, and they weren’t quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.” (Laughter)

So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide’s family.

This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as “beasts who have no houses,” he writes, “They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.”

Now, I’ve laughed every time I’ve read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Locke. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are “half devil, half child.”

And so I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not “authentically African.” Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.

But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. A few years ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.

I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself. So 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. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on 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 Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho — (Laughter) — and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. (Laughter) (Applause) Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation. (Laughter)

But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.

When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had done to me. (Laughter) But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.

But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our fire trucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

So what if before my Mexican trip I had followed the immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my mother had told us that Fide’s family was poor and hardworking? What if we had an African television network that broadcast diverse African stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls “a balance of stories.”

What if my roommate knew about my Nigerian publisher, Mukta Bakaray, a remarkable man who left his job in a bank to follow his dream and start a publishing house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don’t read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would read, if you made literature affordable and available to them.

Shortly after he published my first novel I went to a TV station in Lagos to do an interview, and a woman who worked there as a messenger came up to me and said, “I really liked your novel. I didn’t like the ending. Now you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen …” (Laughter) And she went on to tell me what to write in the sequel. I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in telling me what to write in the sequel.

Now, what if my roommate knew about my friend Fumi Onda, a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos, and is determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget? What if my roommate knew about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos hospital last week? What if my roommate knew about contemporary Nigerian music, talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grandfathers. What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get their husband’s consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition?

Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer, and it is amazing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories.

My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust, and we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist and providing books for state schools that don’t have anything in their libraries, and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind: “They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.” I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise. Thank you. (Applause)

The Singapore Story and Lessons for Africa

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000

Development forms the leading agenda in the world today. What baffles many is the rise of Singapore, a small city state that was forced to become a state by its xenophobic and paranoid Malaysians, to a developed country. Lee Kuan Yew, the city state’s founding father explores this in this book.

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Lee Kuan Yew

Highlights of the book
The book starts with Singapore leaving the Malaysian Federation. Many people didn’t think Singapore would be able to survive economically without Malaysia at that time that. The ever-present physical threat from neighboring communist countries did not help either. So one of the first things Mr. Lee did was to make the British troops stay in Singapore as long as possible to help build Singapore’s own military. Although the British military sympathized with him, the political situation back home forced them to leave eventually.
Mr. Lee described how the government dealt with the obnoxious Western press. It happened frequently that a Western magazine slandered the Singapore government, but refused to publish the government’s reply. Had the government banned the magazine, they could have been accused of suppressing the truth. So the Singapore government did something absolutely brilliant! They allowed the magazine to be sold in Singapore, but restricted the number of copies, to about one tenth of the usual number of copies sold. That way, they demonstrated that they weren’t afraid to let the hostile magazine bring their opinion to Singapore, but intelligently took away their profits.

The Singaporean government also used a unique way of dealing with political opposition. In most countries of the world, when people in power are slandered by the opposition, they usually do one of the two things: throw the criticizers into jail, or swallow it because smear campaigns are supposed to be a part of democracy. The Singaporean government, however, had a much better way! They routinely sued the slanderers for damages. After the loudmouths were forced to pay large indemnities a few times, they would eventually become more responsible and learn to keep their criticism limited to actual opinions rather than cheap personal attacks and malicious rumors. That method worked well because of the impartiality of Singaporean courts (heritage of the British colonial rule).

The curious thing with Singapore’s supposedly authoritarian regime is that they have been democratically elected back into power, decade after decade. Apparently, an ethical government that is liked by a big majority of the population just isn’t acceptable to Western democrats who insist that a nation be divided into fractions that hated each other.

The other half the book is not about Singapore, but about events in countries that Singapore had relations with (and also about the leaders of those countries). This makes it extra interesting as it puts all the material about Singapore into context.

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story is a fascinating insight into the mindset of one small country’s rulers bold enough to do what they considered to be right, undisturbed by international prevailing political dogmas.

Singapore in 1963

This is Singapore in 1963

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This is Singapore Today

Book Description
Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world’s number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world’s fourth-highest per capita real income? The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore’s charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Rising from a legacy of divisive colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War, and general poverty and disorder following the withdrawal of foreign forces, Singapore now is hailed as a city of the future. This miraculous history is dramatically recounted by the man who not only lived through it all but who fearlessly forged ahead and brought about most of these changes. Mr. Lee is one of the most respected political figures in the world today (“Time” and “Newsweek” regularly profile his socio-economic strategies and his regime), and recognition of his name among academic, political, historical and sociological circles is guaranteed. This volume also features a foreword from Dr. Henry Kissinger.