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Lincoln Middle School English teacher Chon Lee takes a picture with children he met during a visit to an orphanage in Sokone, Senegal in Africa this summer. Chon spent five weeks in Senegal to learn about the history and culture of the country. (photo by Photo Courtesy Chon Lee)

There is not just a single story for Africa. It is truly a land beyond our initial stereotypes — that of hunger, poverty, crime, war, destitution, and HIV/Aids. Yes, I realize there is indeed truth behind all stereotypes, but I choose to focus on the successes not just the shortcomings as I believe there is a danger to trusting a single story. I learned this lesson as I journeyed for four weeks in Senegal, West Africa this summer on a Fulbright-Hays scholarship alongside 15 other diverse teachers from around the nation.

During our stay, we traveled across the country visiting various cultural and historical Senegalese locations; the bustling urban streets of Dakar, the former seaport capital of Saint-Louis, the beautifully lush mangroves and sanctuaries of Toubacouta, the statuesque religious mosques of Touba. All the while, we were fortunate enough to meet and dialogue with government officials, education specialists, musicians, artists, and NGO representatives.

As I walked around the capital city of Dakar and the surrounding neighborhoods, I became more and more inundated with the prevalent gap between the absolute rich and impoverished poor. It seemed like yet another story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

However, this time I was not only conscious but culturally sensitive for allowing myself to fall victim to this single story of poor Africa. I realized it was just too easy for me as a foreign American visitor to see and ultimately judge Senegal as merely destitute — the more we show people as one thing over and over again, then that’s what they become. As a group, we studied the Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Adichie’s notion of the “dangerous single story”. Adichie poignantly accounts how “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I too have fallen in the trap of the single story. When I went to Azerbaijan last spring to share best practices with secondary Azeri educators, I was completely mind-struck with a land of contrasts: rich and poor, urban and rural, developed and undeveloped, technological and primitive, globalization and stagnation, the industrial and pastoral. I could not keep these single stories out of my mind and I felt ashamed for letting my consciousness overtake my better judgment to the point where I focused on how we are different instead of concentrating more energy and thought to how we are similar.

Every teacher on the Fulbright grant focused on an area of specialization ranging from Senegalese drumming to urban Dakar graffiti. I knew that I wanted to learn more about how exactly the Senegalese were helping to improve their lives and ultimately chose the concept of microfinancing as my research topic. The idea of microfinance started with a movement in the 1970s with Muhammad Yunus, who is most recognized with starting Grameen Bank in Bangladesh — he won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2006.

Microlending banks provide official loans to people who would normally not have access to formal banking towards starting their own businesses, usually with very low interest rates. In Senegal, common businesses ranged from goat herding to fabric weaving to peanut farming, whichever the entrepreneur wants to invest his or her time in. I was pleased to learn that over 40 percent of Senegalese adults have taken out at least one microcredit loan and there is definitive economic growth given that roughly 34 percent of the population is living under $1.25 a day, which is the International Poverty Line. I discovered in my research that studies have shown how microfinance helps to not only provide basic financial services to low-income families for economic welfare and stability, but also supports women’s economic participation, empowering women, thus promoting gender-equity and improving household well-being.

Since I have my students read the deeply resonant South African autobiography “Kaffir Boy” by Mark Mathabane, I wanted to create a unit to follow up on the deep poverty, violence, and racism of apartheid that Mathabane so vividly describes. Each year my students always ask how we can help, but that notion of the white outsider coming to save or rescue the African is another dangerous single story in and of itself. I wanted my students to learn how these single stories are indeed incomplete, that there are people changing their lives for the better in Africa through microfinance and how our help does not always have to be mere charity-giving.

That’s why I love the concept of microlending because it is living proof how dedicated, responsible, and resourceful people can be when given access to something that should be a basic right for everyone — formal banking services. I want my students to realize that Africa is not just a country of dangerous single stories, but also hope, optimism, and progress both economic and social. In my travels, I was fortunate enough to talk to many women in rural villages who received microloans and see firsthand how it has deeply affected them. In particular, I remember meeting a lady in a small fishing village outside Toubacouta, originally living on 70 cents a day and struggling to feed her nine children. She started with a $30 loan, which to us might sound insignificant, but used the money to resell basic home goods (milk, snacks, and drinks) outside on the street next to her house.

Six years later she owns a market, employs three other people in her village, and is sending one of her daughters to the university in Dakar. It was truly touching for me to hear inspirational stories like this as it shows just how a relatively small loan can make huge long-term impacts.

Upon deep reflection, Senegal has made a definite mark on my thinking and teaching practices. I want to transfer the knowledge I’ve gained to all my students through our readings and texts, expanding our dangerous and incomplete single stories beyond the sheer stereotypical towards looking through a fresh, new lens of growth and positivity. I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have traveled to Senegal — it is truly a beautiful country with stories we can all learn from through universal themes of humility, resilience, and the grace of the human condition.

Chon Lee is a National Board Certified English teacher at Santa Monica High School. He has received international educational grants and awards to South Africa, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, and most recently Senegal. He can be reached at clee@smmusd.org.