I come from a conventional, 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 domestic help, who would often 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 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. startled. It had not occurred to occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about 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, later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to left Nigeria to go to university in the United United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to 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 felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, patronizing, well meaning meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.