Last Friday I woke up to news that the jihadist group al-Murabitoun had attacked a hotel in Mali and held over a hundred hostages. Reports stated that 27 people had died by the end of the day. Every day we are haunted by the news of terror in at least one part of the world.
It is easy to feel solidarity with some, while others seem so distant. Perhaps as one writer put it, that is human. Perhaps. Resources are limited, knowledge is limited, and so are attention spans. Indeed if we were to stop and think about the crimes of humanity committed against humanity, from the terrorist attack, to the child who dies of starvation, we would not have time for much else. In truth, maybe we shouldn’t. But idealism, and all of that.
Empathy for humankind, I hope, is something that though it may not be experienced at equivalent intensities at all times, ought to be reserved for all people in all spaces. In fact, the more vulnerable the people, the greater our empathy ought to be. Again, I hope.
Earlier last week on my mind was a country approximately 1660 kilometres from Mali – Nigeria. Nigeria is the land of my birth, and although every thinking person has a complicated relationship with the socially constructed space they were born into, it is more so when you are from a recently colonized space, a space you left when you were young; a space to you, that like every other space, can feel both like home but also foreign – a familiar yet strange space.
As I negotiate my Nigerian-ness and what it means in adulthood, as an observer of culture and identity, as a person who has always lived so far away, but who would also not claim any other socially constructed space as my primary identity, I begin to wonder what being a Nigerian means too, during the time of Boko Haram. I have heard people from Nigeria say, “Boko Haram is not Nigeria” or “Boko Haram is anti-Nigeria” or “They are not one of us.” And yet here they are, on our soil, taking our children, raping our women, killing our people.
It is a distancing phenomenon that is not unique to Nigeria. No group of people anywhere in the world like to look at themselves in all their horror, and take responsibility for their most cruel sons. Especially in a Nigeria with a history that bears an “us” versus “them” politics and society: north versus south, or Christian versus Muslim, or ethnic divisions – take your pick of the latter.
Indeed, an interesting moment of intercultural difference dawned on me last week during an interaction. In the United States when someone asks, “What are you?” It is likely because you are racially or nationally ambiguous. In Nigeria when people ask that question, they want to know your ethnic tribe. With this knowledge, preconceived notions and stereotypes can be formed about who you are.
Our ethnic histories matter in Nigeria as in much of Africa in a way that non-Africans may not always appreciate. In one sense it is because African history is still largely passed orally. Thus from a young age, the history and tales and narratives of your people are passed down from your elders to form who you are.
But I think too, even among young people who are less ethnically divisive and divided as older generations, there is an attachment to our ethnic tribes that is interestingly postcolonial, but also because of our precolonial histories: our ethnic groups were in existence before our nations were colonized, and they continue to exist after our nations were independent. As such, there is a romanticism of who we are when we talk about what we are – our ethnicity. We like to think the colonizers didn’t take that away from us.
In this ethnic romanticization as well as regional and religious division, some Nigerians continue to distance themselves and the country from Boko Haram. I get it. The West already has its incomplete constructions and imaginations about us – we don’t want to fall into their stereotypes. After all, Nigerians, like any big and significant population of people in the world, already have many negative global stereotypes. From “419 e-mail scammers” to “being arrogant without cause.” And now, the potential for a stereotype of terrorists. “Must we suffer this stereotype too?” That was a question a Nigerian college student recently expressed to me in distress.
Terrorism is a global phenomenon but the way it is manifested is regional, local, and culturally specific. Boko Haram has been deadly mostly in the Muslim north. For some in the Christian south, this desire to be free from Boko Haram’s tarnishment of the country’s image, has led to more othering of the north. It has brought back the feelings of some who always thought that the country should not be one, but two: a mostly Muslim north, and a mostly Christian south, which are also divided along ethnic lines.
I guess the problem with thinking about what it means to be Nigerian in the time of Boko Haram is that Nigerians still haven’t entirely figured out what it means to be Nigerian, period. We certainly haven’t figured how to be Nigerian in all its diversity and live in peace.
Most times I think what it means to be Nigerian is to occupy a space where you feel little, if any, patriotism towards the country, especially towards its political institutions and government. And yet you feel a deep pride in being a part of Africa’s self-proclaimed greatest truly African country. (The truly African part is often meant as a snide remark against South Africa because the two nations are seen as continental competitors, economically, and in terms of social and cultural influence.)
Interestingly, I think we – Nigerians – share that psyche with Americans: a certain self-importance about the nation one was brought into, even where the facts of that nation do not match up to the pride for that nation. But maybe that’s everywhere in the world. It’s just more noticeable when there are a whole lot of you anywhere in the world.
As a Nigerian in Diaspora, dealing with the facts of the country and what it is and isn’t, is always complicated. But now more so during the time of Boko Haram when from a distance, you almost can’t believe this is happening. The tendency, I have seen of those in Diaspora, like many Nigerians in the country, is to distance. “Boko Haram is not Nigeria.” “Boko Haram is anti-Nigeria.” “They are not us.” Except they are. It is a terrifying thought but they are. These evil madmen are us.
We say suicide is un-Nigerian and terrorism is un-Nigerian but here we are. They came from our societies and because of our very Nigerian political way of not dealing with things until they are really bad, we are now going up against the deadliest terrorist group there is in the world right now, in the matter of sheer number of deaths. And sometimes it feels like we’re winning and sometimes it feels like we’re losing.
It felt like we were losing last week when at least 31 people died in Kano.
Being a Nigerian in Diaspora means feeling a frustration that you’re told not to worry about – because you don’t live there now. It means being simplified into a person who ought to know about Boko Haram, even when you’re not sure you know more than anyone else. It means being a person who is now pitied by those who at least know what is going on in your country, but also those with no sense of understanding of the complexity of Nigeria. It means wanting people to care, but not wanting you or your people to be pitied with that condescending imagination that people in this part of the world often have of Africans.
Most days I just feel uncomfortable talking about Boko Haram with non-Africans. It’s probably a prejudice. But to explain that one part of a country can be fine, carrying on as it were, while the other part is in a period of hellish violence on a relatively mass scale, and this dissonance is accepted, is something maybe only other Africans, or at least people who are from developing countries, just get. It’s not something you can understand by a history lesson or a cultural documentary or a volunteer visit or turning on the news. It’s something that you either just get or you don’t.
In the end, I am left with several feelings. Frustration at the Nigerian government. Helplessness for those experiencing the acts of terrorism as victims. Anger at other Nigerians who ignore the problem entirely or use it to promote ethnic and religious divisions. And from an ocean away, weariness at the ignorance that now exists at multiple levels about the country. And every now and then, the feeling of futility creeps in and stays a while.
Still, it has never been my prerogative to discuss despair without providing hope because I do not believe in giving up the latter. So even from that ocean away, I am reminded that Nigeria has defeated monsters before: colonization, civil war, dictatorship governments, etc. I feel encouraged by the activists everywhere in the world who demand their voices be heard from the political institutions and media that influence how this story unravels. And I feel overwhelmed with inspiration at the strength of especially the Nigerian girls and women of the north, who continue to seek education and empowerment, even under the threat of cowardly men with guns and bombs.
Nigerians are a resilient people, and though it can be our greatest weakness, it can also be our greatest strength. With the strength that Nigerians are known for and pride ourselves on having, it is imperative that wherever we are, we find ways to be in solidarity with our country, and to humbly ask for people to be in solidarity with us. Whether it is providing women and children of the north with monetary support (from grassroots organizations), or demonstrating in front of our embassies, or relentlessly questioning our political institutions. Or maybe its simply making the effort to share your perspective with the world that hopefully educates people even just a little bit about a complicated, strange land where you feel foreign. But a land that however complicated, will also always be home.