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On one of our last nights in Johannesburg, we made a startling discovery: it is exceedingly difficult to find ice cream in the middle of winter in South Africa. Without international data to search for the nearest ice cream shop, we simply wandered up and down the chilly streets in search of a treat to satisfy our sweet tooth. One storekeeper told us the nearest ice cream shop was several kilometers away and likely closed. We were disheartened, but unwilling to admit defeat. We walked into the nearest restaurant where the manager told us that while he did not usually serve ice cream, he happened to have some in the back. He was happy to bring it out free of charge. We were ecstatic. As we dug into the frozen treat, Jonah, the manager, asked where we were from.

“We go to a university in North Carolina,” we answered.

“North Carolina? No way! I was just watching a documentary that takes place there.”

“Really? What city? We live in Durham.”

Jonah nodded. “Durham sounds familiar. I’m pretty sure that’s it. Wow, you live in a messed up place.”

I was a bit confused by his statement. On the one hand, I know Durham faces a number of struggles: racial injustice, redlining, economic inequities, inadequate public transportation, and low-resourced public schools, to name a few. However, on the other hand, Durham is also a vibrant community with world-class universities and hospitals, a number of museums, delicious restaurants, beautiful hiking trails and greenways, a popular Triple-A baseball team, and a rich history.

How did someone in Johannesburg conclude that this multifaceted city is simply “a messed up place?” I decided to investigate the documentary. The Staircase follows the story of a man accused of murdering his wife by pushing her down a staircase. The documentary depicts the Durham police as incompetent, botching several aspects of the investigation and only solving a small percentage of their cases. The documentary also shows the DA and court system in general as deeply corrupt.

Jonah did not know any of the context that I’ve become familiar with during my two years in Durham and sixteen years in neighboring Raleigh: context of the vibrant city, its culture, and its history. He was instead only exposed to a city of callous murderers, an inept police force, and corrupt systems. Of course he would think the city of the documentary to be nothing but “messed up.”

Jonah had constructed a single story of Durham. In a fantastic TED Talks called “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Adichie says “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Murderers, incompetent police officers, and corrupt government officials all exist in Durham, but they are an incomplete narrative. Because four Durhamites happened to wander into his restaurant searching for ice cream despite the biting chill outside, the documentary was no longer Jonah’s only story about Durham.

Adichi goes on to explain that Africa has long been reduced to a single story. Based on popular images produced and reproduced in the United States, “Africa is a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner.”

Adiche emphasizes the harm of a single story: “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.”

I was reminded about this single story of Africa on my third day of work. While my internship is at a research center advocating for workers’ rights, we happened to have conferences on the first three days. The conferences were held in flashy convention centers on the waterfront. Hundreds of people scurried past floor to ceiling windows in their business suits. We were served a constant supply of coffee and opulent lunches.

As we arrived at our third day of conferences, Sameer, one of my co-workers, jokingly asked “Do all of your friends in the US think Africa is just lions, zebras, and starving children?”

I answered, “Not everyone, but many people do.”

“You’ll have to go home and tell them the truth.”

“Alright. I’ll tell them that based on my experience, Africa is nothing but conferences.”

We both laughed, but I know that through our jokes, Sameer was expressing that he was acutely aware of the single story I’d grown up hearing. He wanted to make sure I told a different narrative upon my return.

Adichi ends her speech by saying that “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

We like to say that one of the points of travel is to reject single stories as we learn a myriad of narratives about the places we find ourselves. However, I recognize that statement is inherently one of privilege. Many never have the opportunity to travel. Others use their travels to simply seek out confirmations of the single stories they’ve already formed.

Therefore, while I’ve confronted countless stories in Johannesburg and Cape Town, I am cautious about feeling I’ve “regained a kind of paradise” just because I am here. I was exposed to the stories I’ve heard and seen here because of my privilege to be in this space. And there are still an overwhelming number of stories I have not heard, so I will continue to listen.