November 21, 2017

DON’T LET OTHERS TELL YOUR STORY by Ier Jonathan  

DON’T LET OTHERS TELL YOUR STORY by Ier Jonathan   

NOTE: Special thanks to Chimamanda Adichie for inspiring this title

It is an INTENSELY dangerous thing to let other people tell your story for you; no matter the reason.

For centuries, women have let men tell their stories for them. Women have let men tell them and the world what they are like; who they are; what they can and cannot do. And they have done this through male-dominated stories and through narratives and proverbs written from a male perspective. Even in our Holy Books.

IER

When you let others tell your story for you, how can they tell it accurately? Do they know your history? The things that have shaped you? The inner whispers of your very soul and heart and the workings of mind? The real reason you do the things you do? The reason you cry or worship or smile? Your own perspective of the world?

So our male-dominated historians and story tellers tell women that they are ‘querulous’ by nature, they are ‘too emotional’ and not ‘rational’ enough. Women are the ‘weaker’ and ‘more sensitive’ sex, women ought to be perfect, women have a certain place – women are unequal to men but somehow still hold a place of honour. Women must kowtow and bow and scrape and uphold the ego of their male brethren to keep their menfolk. And many women believe these story tellers. And act out the script written for them. And teach their daughters and sisters and nieces to follow the script.

Women too tell men’s stories – only recently perhaps in the books – but for centuries, they have whispered it to the children they nurture. Men are ‘weak’ when it comes to controlling their lust for women (yet somehow still the stronger sex). ‘Real men do not cry’. ‘Real men do not show emotion except anger and excessive rivalry and revelry especially in sports’. Men must be ‘strong’. A man’s manhood is determined by his having children and by how much he can provide for his family (so those not blessed with the ability to impregnate a woman or for the millions of men living in poverty simply because they were born in the ‘wrong’ country are really not ‘real men’). A man’s pride and ego must be maintained at all costs. And our sons and brothers and fathers buy these stories too. And act out the script.

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Incredible. We have been doing this to ourselves for centuries.

This is the same for Africans. Nigerians. We have let others tell our history for us…in their own distorted fashion such that they even named our rivers for us, our countries for us and ‘discovered’ River Niger and other great places for us.

They are still telling our stories for us; through CNN and BBC Africa and the Economist and Al Jazeera etc. It is telling that there is no well-known, continent-wide media outfit that originates from an African country to tell our stories from our perspective. To set the agenda for Africa on the world’s stage.

Many of us do not know our history. We do not study it. Or invest in its study. In our archaeology. Even the history taught my generation (those born in the early 70s) as we grew up was the history written for us by the colonisers who came calling in the 19th and 20th century. This history goes something like this:

‘Before the white man came to Africa, the tribes were primitive. They went around without clothes, they cannibalised themselves and had barbaric traditions. The colonising white men, through missionaries, gave the Africans civilization and brought in modernity. Before then, the African tribes were a group of ignorant barbarians.’

This is the idea many Africans have of their history. While our history is not devoid of a certain violence (as that of every other race and group on the planet), this narrative has come to be the defining narrative in popular culture for our continent. We and our children do not often hear about the great kingdoms such as the Benin and Oyo Kingdoms, or great warrior Kings and Queens such as Queen Amina of Zazzau (Zaria), the Isadshi-Koseshi female warriors of the Nupe, King Jaja of Opobo or Ya Asantewa. Or the great strides our ancestors made with discoveries such as the use of earthenware pots to cool water. So we and our children look outside for affirmation; for worth and for validation as a people. We still do it. With our hankering after Western approval of our story telling, our institutions and striving to find a place in western built and dominated institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank etc.

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Do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with winning the Nobel Peace Prize or the Commonwealth Prize for Literature. And we need to work with the reality of our times when it comes to participating in world economics and politics but whatever happened to developing our own institutions for our own people by our standards and telling our stories from our own perspectives? Thank God for writers like Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariama Ba, Camara Laye, Ali Mazrui, Ousmane Sembane, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa’thiongo etc. on our continent. And thank God for the more recent generation of writers such as Chimamanda Adichie, Brian Chikwava, JM Coetzee, Helon Habila, Eghosa Imasuen, Toni Kan Onwordi, Binyavanga Wainana etc. who continue this fine tradition. We need more.
And we need our governments and other stakeholders to invest in creating enabling environments for story tellers, historians, archaeologists, film makers, artists etc. to research and tell our stories and our histories even better than ever before. They may help us better understand our past and our present so that we can work for a better future.

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The views expressed here are those of the author.

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