Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Post: The Danger of a Single Story

(Alternative title: 'Stories from Kenya or how I learned to stop worrying and just enjoy the mangoes')

Guest Contributor: Odharnait Ansbro

Sunrise Mt. Kenya

I thought that once I arrived back in London, Africa would seem like a distant dream, that after a few days I’d be swept up in the rush of life in London and feel like I’d never left. But I carry the view of sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kenya in mind, the taste of mangoes on my tongue, the sound of the muezzin in my ears and the sand of Lamu’s beaches in my shoes.  Africa has, once again, gotten under my skin.

It’s been there since I was two, when my family moved to Tanzania for two and half years. So, for this three week trip to Kenya, I felt like I was going home. Everything was, at once, utterly exotic and deeply familiar. The sandstone chess sets and ebony Masai figurines on sale at every roadside tourist stop were the same as the ones my parents brought back with us. The rows of ants that appeared with every uncleaned crumb, the sharp itch of mosquito bites, the Swahili in the streets all conjured up my childhood.

But for all my pretensions to an affinity for Africa, I realised that my vision of the continent was the one I had absorbed from living most of my life in the West and seeing Africa through the lens of famine, war, disease and death.  For the first week, I was terrified I’d be robbed, or kidnapped, that the water or the sliver of lettuce in my sandwich at a cafĂ© would make me sick. But my narrow view quickly ballooned into a complex, rich, colourful picture of life. 

This was mostly thanks to the many guides who led me on my travels. The principal one being the wonderful Andrea, who planned the first two weeks of our trip, picked me up from the airport, fed me chocolate and got us on a nine hour overnight bus to the coast the first day I arrived. She taught me how to haggle (Ghali sana! Do you think I arrived yesterday my friend? I live in Nairobi!), banter in Swahili, negotiate the streets of Nairobi and the markets of Kangemi.  There was Peter, her local taxi man, who talked at length about anything from religion to politics, to Maasai culture, and my guide, also Peter, who led me step by step up the slopes of Mt. Kenya (pole pole), among many others.

Art Caffe Ladies

Kenya is a country where private companies are designing and building state of the art cities run by private management companies; where you can get a cocktail in a bar in Karen that costs as much as three weekly shops in Kangemi; where stalls of lashed together branches and plastic roofs sell everything from chip pans to radios to knock off watches, 20 minutes away from shopping centres with water features and Dolce and Gabbana shoes; where every outcrop of concrete block shops from the Maasai Mara to the coast is painted in the colours of Safaricom and M-Pesa, where mobile signal is available on the summit of Mt. Kenya. It’s difficult to capture, with so few words, the diversity, the disparity and the complexity of the country I saw.

For the most part, the story of Africa we see in the West is one that has been filtered of its complexity and colour. The continent is reduced to a stage on which epic tragedies unfold again and again, a place that desperately needs to be saved, that only speaks in the passive voice. Poverty, war and disease exist but they are single stories within a multitude of others - stories of a mobile revolution, of economic growth, of (extra)ordinary people getting on with their lives. Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, made this point in her TED talk recently The Danger of a Single Story. I’ll be trying to remember it.


  1. Good foreword but I'd like some of the detail of the story.
    Paterfamilias( I would wouldn't I ).

  2. Loved this post! Well done Odharnait and Andrea. It's been great learning about 'the other' Kenya and its complexities rather than the Kenya we hear about through news organisations.x