The single story

Not by any feat of the imagination, can I pretend to have come from a disadvantaged educational background.

A lot of importance was placed on education when I was growing up. My father and his 7 siblings had beaten the odds by overcoming a challenging financial and social background, and while 4 of the 8 were practising advocates including my father, the others included an architect and 3 teachers.

I grew up with ambitious dreams of following in my father’s footsteps, and some day inheriting the H******* J***** law firm on Makadara road in downtown Mombasa. And so when I was 17 and applying to university, I instinctively chose varsities that offered a good law program.

Even though that was nearly 15 years ago, I can remember it clearly. My father and I stood on the balcony, looking out at the setting sun, feeling the heat in the air being replaced by the cool ocean breeze. And he turned round and said I was not cut out to be a lawyer. That as a girl, I was too sensitive and emotional and that a legal career in Kenya was suited to a man.

 I was crushed; I was angry. But I hid both emotions behind an acceptance of what he had said, and applied to journalism school.

It took a while for the sting in his words to go away, and for me to adjust to a world in which I was not a law student – and in truth it only  happened after I had immersed myself in my journalism studies, started to discover my identity through my writing, and realised that the battles I wanted to fight in this world may ultimately be better fought with my pen as a sword than in any court room: including struggles to define myself as a modern woman in a traditional society, and speak out against the abuse and injustices that my mother had experienced in her married life. And I did this through my blog, and through interactions on social media.

The change that the growth of social media has precipitated is one where communication flows not from the one to the many, but from many to many and the implications are enormous. For me it is represented most intimately in the overthrow of the power of the single story, and the creation of a platform on which many stories co-exist. And this is eloquently expressed by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie in her TED talk The danger of a single story.

She talks about how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, and how the consequence of reading a single story which does not represent your world view is a feeling of extreme alienation. For me, it was a world view which forever precluded my dreams of being a lawyer. The single story emphasises our differences rather than our similarities, but social media has changed that forever.

Heba’s story is one that challenges the single story told by international media about the popular uprising in Egypt. It shows us the similarity between Egypt and Kenya. It connects us as countries that are looking for the truth, that want ethical leadership and peaceful transition of power, and basic human rights regardless of opinions or affiliation.

During the 2007/2008 post election violence in this country, the Kenyan group Ushahidi broke the power of the single story, and the  monopoly of communication in this country. First person accounts of what was happening were shared and discussed through Ushahidi, and it changed the way that Kenya talked to itself and how it talked to the world.

The presence of Kenyans on Twitter is a similar phenomenon: we are challenging authority, questioning decisions, and overthrowing a traditional understanding of communication. Forever changing the single story of Kenya.

And so today, in a time of Twitter, Facebook and other social media that spell the demise of the single story, we have platforms to construct a world where a girl like me will know she can be a lawyer no matter what her father tells her.

My presentation at the screening of “Words of Witness” at the Nairobi Human Rights Film Festival

November 21 2012


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