It seems to me that the majority of people respond to the first question with words like poor, dirty, sad, polluted, hungry, and desperate. To answer the second they will recount tales of despair, families who don’t have enough food to feed their children, senseless deaths, and the tragedies of life here.
Do you think that’s an accurate picture of Haiti? Do you think those are the stories Haitians want told?
Don’t get me wrong, in the case of raising awareness and pleading for action for Haiti, it is important to share the realities of this country. But as I reflect on the stories we share—the stories I share—I have to ask myself, what stories should we be telling?
Chimamanda Adichie is a novelist from Nigeria. I encourage you to watch her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story“. She encourages us to be careful not to attribute only a single story to a country or a people group.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Nigeria with domestic helpers, she remembers one little house boy named Fide. Her mother always told her how poor his family was. At the dinner table she would get scolded for not finishing her food, reminded that there are starving children like Fide who don’t have such a luxury as an overabundance of food.
Not long after Fide came to live with them, her perspective changed…
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.
She talks about moving to the U.S. to attend university. Her American roommate was surprised she spoke English so well (obviously unaware that English is the offical lanugage of Nigeria!), expected that she didn’t know how to use a stove, and seemed disappointed when she was listening to Mariah Carey instead of “tribal” music. Her roommate had only a single story of Africans.
Haiti is in danger of us hearing only a single story.
But what if we changed that? What if we joined with the Haitians to tell the stories they want told? Stories of hope, of triumph and success, of overcoming difficult obstacles to care for their families and raise up a new generation.
Stories like Nancy, who was raised in a rural mountain village. At the age of ten, she lost her left hand in an accident. She is now a young mother who gave birth to a baby girl in January 2013 who has some kind of visual disability that has yet to be diagnosed. Instead of focusing on the disabilities of her and her child, she has decided to take control of her life and has moved four hours away to Port au Prince—a difficult place, yet sometimes a place of opportunity. She’s using business skills she learned from her mother to sell hygeine items in the open market, hoping to make a profit and be able to better care for herself and her daughter Makala.
Stories like Geddy, another young mother of two living children. Her middle child died of malnutrition a couple years ago. Her third child, Smerelda, was brought last fall to a nearby nutrition clinic. At 13 months old, Smerelda weighed just over 7 pounds. After many obstacles, not excluding opposition from the young mother herself, Smerelda began receiving the medical and nutritional care she needed. She is still small but plump and growing. And Geddy is all smiles and now refers other mothers with malnourished children to the clinic so they can get healthy like her baby! She has overcome the lies of Voodoo beliefs within her community that told her that her baby was cursed, and has realized that she has the power to create change for her family.
Just like the photos we take, the stories we tell are important. They have the ability to motivate and encourage. I don’t want to tell stories that guilt people into taking action. I want to tell stories that inspire people to ignite a change in their society and the world around them!
I’ll close with more from Chimamanda Adichie, “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.”