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The Danger Of A Single Story: Why Dharavi’s Other Story Needs To Be Told

“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.”

In her brilliant TED talk, novelist Chimamanda Adichie discusses how only hearing one story about a people or place can lead to misunderstanding. In the vast and complex world that we live in it makes sense that we try to simplify our world to help us make sense of it. Ms. Adichie gives an example:

“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was 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.”

We are trapped into believing these oversimplified, one-dimensional viewpoints because they are the predominate stories that we are fed day after day, year after year by the media. She continues, “Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Single stories can also be responsible for people’s unwillingness to travel or visit certain places. A place may have been deemed dangerous or unfriendly. But this is precisely why traveling with the purpose of learning and understanding is so important: to get another story.

Dharavi and slums everywhere are victims of the single story. We are continually told by the media that Dharavi is a crime-ridden, dirty place filled with lazy, poor people. In this case the stereotype isn’t just incomplete, it’s wrong. Dharavi is a hive of industrial activity with about $665 million dollars in annual turnover. The crime rate is lower and most areas are cleaner than many other parts of Mumbai. This is not to say that Dharavi is not without its challenges. Water, sewage, lack of space and limited access to toilets, activities and educational programs are all serious problems that need to be dealt with. But to adequately combat these issues we need to have a realistic idea of the situation.

Pappadum making in Dharavii
Pappadum making in the residential areas of Dharavi

But even Mumbaikars are victims of this single-story. Many people live their entire lives in Mumbai and never visit places like Dharavi and instead use portrayals in the media to form an opinion about it. Proof of the pervasiveness of this stereotype can be found in the statistics that we track: 86% of our guests say that their perception of slums has changed (only 11% said they had an accurate idea) and 93% find the tour very interesting. But most importantly, they are more often than not inspired to take action, either in Dharavi or back home in their own communities.

Reality Tours and Travel’s mission is to present the real Dharavi, unfiltered by the media. This doesn’t mean that we paint a rosy picture of Dharavi (in that case we would be just as guilty of presenting a single-story). We strive to showcase the industriousness and community spirit that exists as well as the challenges that need to be overcome. More stories exist in Dharavi and they need to be told.

Sign up for an educational Dharavi Slum Tour.

Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s full TED Talk.