Travel is the cure to prejudice…

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I have a bug bear, and it is the portrayal of ‘the developing world’ in our ‘western’ media. It is filled with prejudice, an attitude that one culture is superior and it often gives a single (and warped) story.

It’s been hard to miss the mass hysteria the USA has had over the ebola virus once it entered their country (and failed to recognise it). Politicians in high positions of power making crazy decisions based on perception and prejudice rather than scientific facts. And I quite agree with Chimamanda Adichie’s thoughts on the appalling journalism in American newspapers when Nigeria was declared ‘ebola free’. I’m glad that the first BBC headline I saw regarding ‘ebola free’ Nigeria was mourning the incredible Dr Ameyo Adadevoh and praising her diagnostic skills and strength of conviction which surely saved the lives of many when she treated Patrick Sawyer. Nigeria should be given credit where credit is due.

It is only by travelling, and by other people travelling that I have learned that so many of the cultural stereotypes I have been taught since childhood  are in fact a complete load of rubbish. I’m ashamed to think back when I asked my friend when he was going home to South Africa about track roads and shops in shacks – I had no idea that they had motorways and supermarkets and even *gasp* shopping malls.

Why? Because in school I was taught that ‘Africans’ lived in mud huts, wore grass skirts, face paint and everyone lived in isolated countryside.

And I was reminded of this fact when my friend’s almost five year old daughter told me about how she had been learning about ‘Africa’ at school and how the children had nothing to write with. Then she asked me about what the children wore when I went to South Africa. “the same clothes that we wear” I replied, “but less jumpers, because it was warmer than it is in Scotland”. She looked confused, and I was glad that at that time I had my laptop with me which contained all my photos of the young people who had taught me how to fit glass panes in windows of the school we were helping to fix up during their half-term break and the awesome kids who had been at the school holiday club we’d helped out at (run totally by locals, we were their staff not the other way around).

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And when I went to Morocco at 16, the culture was so very different! The women in the cities dressed very differently to the women in the Berber villages in the Atlas mountains. Two women we met climbing up to the place we were staying for a few nights almost fell off the mountain laughing at my friend who decided to wear his kilt that day.

There has also been understanding as I learned about the differences that at times frustrate me. Understanding brought by learning about the history and variations in culture. And I have learned that often there are far more similarities than the media would lead us to believe.

I sincerely hope that the Englishman sitting next to myself and my Nigerian friend in a restaurant in Paris learned something when he conversed with us. On discovering I was Scottish and my friend was Nigerian he asked (or more to the point, me) ‘But how are you two friends?‘. Asking two people how they know each other is a simple and expected question. But asking how we are friends is a strange one. I don’t think he would have asked if my friend had been French or Australian. He followed his question with the statement “you must be very different people“.

It’s an encounter I doubt I will forget.

Travel is so important, and these days it’s too easy to physically travel and yet still be in our same little corners. Our isolated bubbles of cultural view, absorbing the same one-sided stories that build up stereotypes. Which often leads to misunderstanding, hate and disharmony.

So even if you can’t physically travel, I urge you to travel in other ways however you can. Seek out the films that aren’t show in the mainstream cinemas. Find the newspapers written in other countries. Listen to all sorts of music even if it’s just once and you decide it’s not for you – at least you tried it! Find the authors who write from another cultural perspective.

You’ll find yourself better able to discern the media discourse that is talking rubbish after.

I promise.

🙂

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Last week, someone on twitter shared a link to a short film made by an inspirational young woman called Doyin. Doyin is fed up being stereotyped, and has decided to speak out about her frustration in a creative way.

As a Girlguiding leader, I have the privilege of working with a lot of inspirational young women who, like Doyin, are frustrated by elements of the world we are living, and finding creative ways to speak out about it.

As a young person, I still remember a less than inspiring conversation with a staff member from a university that shall remain nameless at a Higher Education fair. Finding out where my friend and I were from, she told us that ‘we probably wouldn’t get on well at xxx university because we weren’t typically the type of social background they looked for in their students‘. Sure enough, it was the only university I applied to that didn’t give me an offer. And I’ve never forgotten that conversation and wondered if it was to do with my postcode more than my academic record.

The media has a lot to answer for, and as a society, we need a better filter for what we absorb from it.

Thank you Doyin for your film. 🙂