When you know nothing about a country, it is difficult to imagine what it will be like. When you know a few sparse facts about a place, it is easy to imagine, however unconsciously, that this applies evenly to all people of all backgrounds in all landscapes.
It is easy to fall victim to the single story. And imperative to challenge it.
I was first introduced to the idea of the single story upon my return from Nepal. I had spent three months volunteering on a development project in a remote community in the Western region of Lamjung. Once back in England, I watched a video of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about The Danger of a Single Story. It was powerful and shocking to hear that a professor had criticised her novels as not being “authentically African”.
As an irritatingly contrary, liberal-minded sort of person, I assumed that I was immune to the Danger of a Single Story.
But, thinking over my Nepali experience, it turned out that I was not so immune. Here are five ways in which I reduced my Nepali experience to a single story and five ways in which to challenge that harmful narrative.
- Regional differences- The capital of Kathmandu is starkly different to the community in which I worked. Many families in Kathmandu own washing machines and fridges whereas washing in the community was carried out entirely by hand. Volunteers that I met from Kathmandu also had vastly different attitudes to the villagers and were generally more open to ideas surrounding advanced rights for women.
- Local differences- Even within the community, there was significant inequality. The house in which I stayed was lucky enough to have a well and tank on the roof. This meant that we had an almost constant supply of water and no need to walk to the community tap. In addition, we had an inside bathroom, fan and television. Our house was also constructed out of brick not mud. Other houses nearby were much further from the community pump and had fewer facilities. Generally, these correlated with caste lines (the people of highest caste owning better houses) but even here there were exceptions.
- Generational difference- One of the first questions that everyone I met asked me was whether I had a husband: in Nepal it is usual for women to be married by 24. Some of the teenagers, however, asked me whether I was married and, upon my negative answer, asked whether I had a boyfriend. Many of the older teenagers that I worked with had partners themselves. This reflects changing attitudes and shows that younger Nepali people are often more accepting of relationships before marriage.
- Development is not a straight line- Watching images of slums being destroyed for redevelopment in Kathmandu made me realise that development is not as straightforward as it seems. Although it might have a long-term benefit, the destruction and upheaval it causes is often heart-breaking.
- Poverty= simplicity and happiness- Travel feeds are constantly bombarding you with the idea that people who live in poverty are happier than you. These people supposedly live simpler lives, far away from the consumerist chaos that we are made to suffer. Wouldn’t it be great to be like them? But to idealise poverty is problematic. The biggest realisation that I had in Nepal was that poverty is not glamourous. It seems obvious really but being able to use the internet, being able to express yourself and treat yourself, being able to walk around safely; these are not small concerns. The remote life does not automatically equal peace and contentment. (At them same time, not everyone in poverty is constantly miserable and waiting for the day the volunteers with the white saviour complexes come to rescue them.)
Read more: Five Types of Privilege in Venice