Telling stories … on the Importance of African Studies Today

Monday 31st, March 2014 / 12:24 Written by


  "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." – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, © TEDxTrondheim

“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.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, © TEDxTrondheim

By Tanja Hendriks

Write it down but it doesn´t mean

You´re not just telling stories

These words are part of the first verse of Tracy Chapman´s famous song ‘Telling Stories’, released in 2000. In it, she explains how everybody tells stories but none of these stories have a monopoly on the truth; they are all equally true or untrue and they are all worth narrating. In this essay, I will use Chapman’s lyrics to tell a story. A story about Africa, a renowned and reviled continent, and its people; a story about power and struggles to be heard. But also a story about new chances for the future and ways to move towards a more equitable world. African studies as a discipline has a vital role to play in this transformation, hence its importance in our everyday lives and lived social reality.

Humans are social beings: we constantly relate to each other and this is what gives meaning(s) to our lives. Hannah Arendt: ‘Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and themselves’ (1998 [1958]: 4). We constantly narrate our lives and our experiences (Ochs & Capps 2001) and need the presence of each other in order to be able to do this: ‘I begin my story of myself only in the face of a “you” who asks me to give an account’ (Butler 2005: 11). So, the ‘I’ is constituted by the ‘You’ and we cannot exist without each other (ibid.).

Everybody is unique; we all have our own stories to tell. And within ourselves and our stories many different storylines converge, creating plurality and uniqueness. Human plurality stems from the fact that ‘we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives or will live’ (Arendt 1998 [1958]: 8). This uniqueness is a rich source for stories and each person has his or her own ones. All of these stories deserve to be told, heard and respected. When the opposite happens, people are being excluded. Their stories are not being heard and maybe in the future, this will lead to this person no longer telling stories – effectively losing what it means to ‘be human’; his or her connection with others. Therefore, the censoring (of parts) of peoples’ stories denies them their uniqueness, their plurality, their being human: it reduces them to a trait and they become a stereotype. In her TED talk Chimamanda Adichie touched on this problem which she called ‘the danger of a single story’.1 Stories create a social reality and they ‘open new worlds’. However, if you only hear one singly story repeatedly, you will tend to base your views and ideas on that (naively) assuming that that is the way ‘it’ is. According to Adichie this ‘robs people of their dignity’ because their own story is not being heard. They are being made into stereotypes, ‘objects’ of our knowledge. I argue that this is what has been happening to Africa and its people during our past shared history.

About ‘Africa’2 and its peoples, we seem to know only one single story – albeit maybe different versions of it. In these stories, ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ are mostly depicted as ‘Other’ and inferior to ‘the West’3. Western media often present an extremely oversimplified image. ‘Africa’ is described as if it were one single country; inhabited by ‘Africans’, all speaking the same language, having the same traditions as well as cultural norms and values. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The ‘uniqueness of Africa’ can be found in the great diversity of the continent in more ways than one (Vansina 1992: 8). On top of its geographical and climatic differences, there are many different groups of people living on the continent and they speak over 2000 different languages (Webb & Kembo-Sure 2000: 27). This diversity should have lead to many different stories being told about ‘Africa’ and its peoples. However, the more negative – or even blatantly denigrating and racist – stories have tended to be far more influential than the more positive ones. ‘The West’ generally seems to “win” the discursive battles from ‘the Rest’.

There’s a science fiction in the space between

You and me

A fabrication of a grand scheme

Where I am the scary monster

The African continent, its cultures, ideas and its people is that they have been subjected to domination ever since they came into contact with non-Africans. This domination varied from the utter denial of the (so called ‘precolonial’) African history to the physical exploitation of the continent and its people during the (early) capitalist expansion (Reid 2011, Wolf 1997 [1982]).4 But also discursively ‘Africa’ and its people are being dominated by a single extremely persistent story. Up until this day, many people perceive ‘the West’ as the epitome of development and modernity: something to strive for and aspire to. This mode of thinking is part and parcel of the current dominant discourse, in which ‘the West’ has managed to convince many people in the Global South that they are in fact inferior to Europeans and/or Americans and desperately in need of ‘development’.

Arturo Escobar has written extensively about this “development discourse” of the development story, which he calls ‘an act of cognitive and social domination’ by ‘the West’ (1991: 675). He deconstructed it by arguing that all knowledge that came to be within this discourse, is tainted by it and can therefore never do right to those who are being labeled as “needing development” (1991: 671). Within this discourse, there is only room for one story: ‘Africans’ in need of development and modernization. ‘Africa’ and its peoples seem to be experiencing the effects of the danger of the single story; their own voices were hardly being heard. But, times are changing and more and more alternative stories are being told and retold.

A good example of such diverging stories that challenge the dominance of the single story about ‘Africa’ is the book Readings in Modernity in Africa by Geschiere, Meyer and Pels (2008). They start by saying: we ‘seek to move beyond the unilinear narratives of “modernization” in which “the West” provides the telos towards which all societies were in the process of moving’ (ibid.: 1). By offering the reader several different genealogies of modernity in Africa they convincingly argue that modernity takes many different shapes and that Africa’s ways of ‘being modern’ should not be measured or judged by comparing it to the West’s. If these kind of comparisons will continue to be made, ‘Africa’ will consistently be deemed inferior to ‘the West’ and the hegemony of the discourse will only be confirmed, thereby reinforcing the system and consolidating ‘the West’s’ powerful position (Foucault 1980, 1985, Escobar 1995). (Later on in this essay I will discuss this intricate process of power differences and the ways in which they recur in stories more in depth).

As Geschiere et all conclude in their book: “We hope to have provided a critical, yet empirically adequate research perspective that will allow students of Africa to appreciate the alternatives and counterpoints to modernity as fully modern, and to counter the denials of coevalness that still govern its modern relationships in such a way that a more equitable shared trajectory towards a better future can be imaged and implemented” (2008: 6). African studies can and should pave the way in this process – it should assist ‘Africans’ in contesting the hegemony of the single story, by providing people with different stories.

You write the words and make believe

There is truth in the space between

So then, what should students of African Studies be taught in university in order to do this? Most importantly, I believe that university students have to learn about ‘the relation in which they come to stand to their knowledge, the manner in which they dispose of it, the perspective they have on the place of their knowledge in a wider map of human understanding’ (Collini 2012: 49). Especially due to the extremely racist, judgmental and prejudiced start of our discipline, we need to be able to situate (our) knowledge within a global, historical, cultural and intellectual academic context (Zeleza 2007). We have to be aware of the stories we tell, how we tell them, whom we tell and in what way. At the same time we also have to be critical of the stories we hear: are they perhaps multiple versions of the same single story? Who tells them? When? Why? How? And also; are the stories being put in writing? Published? Translated? By whom? For what reason? Sensitivity to all these issues will assist us in preventing a single story of claiming absolute power. This sensitivity has become ingrained in the African studies, partly because of its problematic beginning and the subsequent current awareness of Africanists of their complicity in creating and repeating this dangerous single story. And maybe also because as a discipline African studies it is still considered ‘marginal’ and close to voices and stories of people who are being marginalized, whilst telling stories that do not consolidate the status quo (Zeleza 2007).

There is fiction in the space between

You and reality

So, if many different stories are being told, why is it then that particular stories manage to become the single story that is being heard? Why are some stories more powerful than others? The French philosopher Michel Foucault came up with a theory of discourse in order to explain this. According to him knowledge production is not neutral (1980, 1985). Knowledge always exists within a discourse, a ‘system of representation’ which ‘defines and produces the objects of our knowledge’; we only know these objects in that particular way (Hall 2001 [1997]: 72). ‘A certain order of discourse produces permissible modes of being and thinking while disqualifying and even making others impossible’ (Escobar 1995: 5). Our thinking is therefore at the same time conditioned and made possible by discourses and the discursive formations of which they are composed. So discourses produce and define reality in historically specific ways: they limit what we can and cannot ‘know’ at a certain moment. Or, in other words; they create the conditions for certain stories to become the single story. Especially when this story becomes institutionalized5 it maintains a position of power by justifying the status quo. Due to its repetition, people will (eventually) internalize it and therefore no longer realize that their own story is being silenced by the story of the ones in power. The story has become hegemonic, the mind has been ‘colonized’, effectively depoliticizing the issues at stake.

An example of the workings of hegemony is to be found in the article of Oyeronke Oyewumi, who – among others – states that ‘the West is the norm against which Africans continue to be measured by others and often by themselves’ (in Coetzee & Roux 1998). The hegemonic discourse (in short: “the West is the Best”) has become so powerful that even those who are being oppressed and disadvantaged by it (non-Westerners, notably Africans), (continue to) use and ‘believe’ in it. It is internalized and becomes the normal way of perceiving and being in the world, obliterating peoples’ stories, their plurality and their being human.

There is fiction in the space between

You and everybody

Ever since the colonial encounter scholars have been engaging themselves with ‘Africa’. This eventually became a discipline; African studies – ‘the production of knowledges on and about Africa’ (Zeleza 2007). Even though the story of this discipline started out rather problematic (ibid.) – to say the least – these days, I believe that African studies is indispensible in creating a space for stories and their meanings that do not (necessarily) follow the dominant discourses because they do not conform to the prevailing ethnocentric – or should I say ‘Westocentric’6 – way of perceiving and being in the world. Stories that are (and will be) created from an Africanist perspective are a vital contribution to the knowledge of our shared world precisely because they often tend to challenge hegemonic views thus helping us overcome the ‘danger of the single story’.

All stories matter, none of them have a monopoly on the truth and none of them are more important than others. As Adichie also emphasized, some past stories have ‘robbed people of their dignity’. But new stories can ‘repair that broken dignity’ and help us ‘connect again as human equals’. These new stories have to come from somewhere; they are there, but they have to be told, heard and retold. This is where the importance of African studies is most evident: the discipline can pave the way towards a new discourse in which the African continent and its people will no longer be the perpetual ‘Other’, inferior to the West. It will assist us in understanding our similarities as human beings. Africanists should aim to spread the diverse stories of this unique continent so that we can learn from each other, the African(’s) perspective won’t be forgotten or systematically ignored (anymore) and we will be able to live together in a world where all stories and voices are being taken into account. Stories are like humans; plural and all of them matter.

Write it down but it doesn´t mean

You´re not just telling stories



Adichie, Chimamanda. 2009. TED talk: The danger of a single story. Filmed in July 2009, posted in October 2009, part of TED Global 2009. (last visited on: 14/09/2013).

Arendt, Hannah. 1998 [1958]. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press.

Collini, Stefan. 2012. What are universities for? London: Penguin books.

Escobar, Arturo. 1991. Anthropology and the Development Encounter: The Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology. American Ethnologist, Volume 18 (4): 658 – 682.

          1995. Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972 -1977. London: Harvester Press Limited.

          1985. Ervaring en Waarheid. Stichting Te Elfder Ure.

Geschiere, Peter & Meyer, Birgit & Pels, Peter. 2008. Readings in Modernity in Africa. London: The International African Institute.

Hall, Stuart. 2001 [1997]. Foucault: Power, Knowledge and Discourse in S. Hall (ed): Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage. Reading Seven in Discourse Theory and Practice, a reader, in association with the Open University.

Ochs, Elinor & Capps, Lisa. 2001. Living Narrative. Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling. London: Harvard University Press.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. 1998. Western Hegemony in African Studies, in “Visualizing the body” in The African Philosophy Reader. P.H. Coetzee & A.P.J. Roux. London and New York, Routledge: 402 – 415.

Reid, Richard. 2011. Past and Presentism: the ‘precolonial’ and the foreshortening of African history. Journal of African History. Volume 52 (2): 135 – 155.

Vansina, Jan. 1992. A past for the future? Dalhouse Review: 8 – 23.

Webb, Vic & Kembo-Sure. 2000. African Voices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wolf, Eric R. 1997 [1982]. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zeleza, P. T. 2007. African Studies form a Global Perspective. (


Tanja Hendriks is a research master student in African Studies at the African Studies Centre (Leiden) and a master student in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She has a bachelor degree in Cultural Anthropology.
This paper has previously been presented at the African Studies Centre (ASC) Leiden. It was written as part of the seminar‘The Field of African Studies and Interdisciplinarity Part 1. Aims and results of Africanist research’.
  1. This is the title of her TED talk, delivered in July 2009.
  2. I use this concept between brackets in order to indicate that I am perfectly aware of its problematic aspects, which I will not go into in this particular essay due to lack of space. However, briefly mentioning Mudimbe’s famous book The Invention of Africa (1988), should suffice in indicating the important fact that the concept does not do justice to the immense diversity which it is supposed to convey.
  3. The same goes for this – equally – problematic concept.
  4. This is also a story. I wrote it down – as did many before me – but we have to be aware of the fact that this is also just a single story that can easily be contested and should be contested more often. If it would have been, it wouldn’t have had such severe consequences in our lived reality.
  5. This has happened with the development discourse/story. Institutions adhering to and generally contributing to the maintenance of the hegemonic position of the single story about Africa are – for example – the IMF and the World Bank.
  6. I borrowed this term from Oyeronke Oyewumi (in Coetzee & Roux 1998).
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