"Why We Don't Talk About Africa" by Ijeoma Oluo
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A few days after the horrifying tragedy at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were murdered in cold blood, we started hearing rumors of another attack. This one happened far away from the cameras. In Borno State, Nigeria, reports were trickling in that up to 2,000 people had been killed in the days prior, by extremist group Boko Haram. The reports were coming out of organizations like Amnesty International, being picked up by smaller news outlets, and finally making their way through social media.
I first started seeing talk of the massacre on Twitter — a few headlines here or there on some of the Africa-focused groups that I follow. Some people seemed concerned, but details were sketchy. By midday it was obvious that something truly horrible had happened: sixteen villages razed to the ground. Boko Haram had decimated the town of Baga with no other goal than to kill as many people as possible.
I tried to find more information about the massacre. I looked on CNN and NPR, and I couldn’t find any mention. I looked on MSNBC; there was a brief article on a back page. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I was shocked, that I wasn’t expecting the same indifference that the West has always shown towards African tragedy. And I was outraged. Outraged that the world could mourn so deeply the murders of 12 people in France, but couldn’t even mention the massacre of 2,000 people in Nigeria. I started posting frantically on Twitter. “Why aren’t people talking about this?” I asked. I posted screenshots of the homepages of news outlets that had no mention.
Most of my posts received no reply. Some people responded that they were surprised; they read the news all the time, but they’d had no idea. A few others replied that there was no point talking about it, because there is always massacre in Africa. In a year in which we saw time and time again how little black lives matter in the U.S. it was a sad reminder that to most Americans, African lives mean even less.
I couldn’t understand it. Why is it like this? Why can’t people see? Racism, yes, but not just racism; people I know to be dedicated to social justice had nothing to say about what had happened in Borno State.
But in the height of my self-righteous outrage I realized something: I hadn’t talked to my brother.
Usually, when I talk about my brother, I mean Ahamefule. He’s 19 months younger than me, a musician and comedian. We’re very close — emotionally, but also physically because we both live in Seattle. But I have another brother. Actually I have more than one other brother, but I don’t really know how many. There are sisters as well, quite a few; again, I don’t have a count. My father, who met my mom in Texas, went back to Nigeria shortly after my brother was born. He had other wives and many other children. He was a Big Man in Nigeria: a professor, a State Representative. But we never knew him, and for a long time, we didn’t know his other family.
My brother Aham and I connected with our other siblings for the first time shortly before our father died in 2006. They were overjoyed to be talking to the faraway brother and sister our father had told them about. They had childhood pictures of us on their wall, sent decades ago by our mother.
Aham and I were not overjoyed, not exactly. We had always known there were likely other siblings, but we had nobody here in Seattle to tell us about them. We had no connection to our father. We had no connection to these people on the phone, no photos of them on our walls. Their joy at finding us made us uncomfortable.
We fell out of touch with most of them within the year, except for one brother, Basil. Basil is only 10 months younger than Aham. He sent enthusiastic emails. He friended us on Facebook. And my brother and I thought he was… well, adorable.
“I can’t wait to meet you dear sister,” he would say, “I can’t wait to meet your son and love him and pet him.”
I would laugh at how weird and earnest his phrasing was.
“I don’t know…is he smart?” Aham asked, and we laughed.
It’s been nine years since I first spoke to Basil. I have talked to him on the phone twice. I look at his Facebook page occasionally, but I have trouble keeping up with the hybrid Igbo/English he and his friends use. I could tell that he was involved in local politics, and he loved soccer and Jesus, but that’s about it. I ignore a lot of his instant messages. It has never occurred to me to call. And while relatives in Nigeria will write, pleading that I visit, I must admit that even if given free tickets, I wouldn’t have gone.
So here I was, shaming the world for not caring about what was happening in Borno State, when I hadn’t even reached out to my family member who was right there in Nigeria. I sent Basil a message asking if he could talk. “He’ll be happy to hear from me,” I thought.
He didn’t respond right away, and honestly, I was a little offended. Here was his big chance to finally talk to the sister he had hounded on Facebook for so long, and he was going to make me wait? The next day he sent me a message.
Basil: Sorry I came in late. I have some heavy workload on me.
Me: Where are you working?
It turns out he’s working on a major development project in Rivers State. He’s one of three people appointed to oversee a massive housing and farming project. He sent me a link to the website. Flashy renderings of new buildings, inspiring slogans — it looked like the propaganda for any development project you’d see in America, except all the faces were brown.
Basil: Of course, I still have my political stunts.
This was my opportunity to ask him about the upcoming election. He’s an ardent supporter of President Goodluck Jonathan. I had known this from his Facebook postings, but I couldn’t really understand why. Over here it’s plain to see that Jonathan is corrupt, and his entire government is corrupt. His inaction on the 200 kidnapped schoolgirls and now this horrible massacre is appalling.
Basil: Let me tell you about the Nigerian system here.
He patiently explained to me the realities of Nigerian politics. Everyone is corrupt. An honest politician would not be able to survive, because nobody else in government would support him or her. All you could hope for was that your corrupt politicians would be the ones siphoning off government funds. Politics in Nigeria — life in Nigeria — is a long battle between the three major ethnic groups: the Igbo, the Yoruba, and in the North, where the majority of the violence inflicted by Boko Haram has occurred, the Hausa.
The Igbo were the entrepreneurs, he explained, the Yoruba were the managers, and the Hausa were the laborers.
Basil: Laborers are largely uneducated and very crude in their reasoning and actions.
Me: Surely not everyone in the North is that way.
Basil: Certainly not! Some of my very good friends are from the North.
I chuckled to myself. Some of my very good friends are from the North. Some of my best friends are black. Such a weirdly universal sentiment.
But what you have heard about Nigeria is true: the three ethnicities are not friends. Every political move, every military action, every newspaper headline — it’s all to win points in this decades long power-play.
Basil: They don’t care about us, the minorities.
Me: We’re a minority?
Our family is Etche. I say that now like it means something to me but until this conversation, I didn’t even know it was different from Igbo. I was embarrassed at my ignorance. I mean, I could have at least looked it up.
I asked Basil if he was upset that nobody had found the abducted schoolgirls. He said he was, but he’s not even sure they were abducted. Things are very unstable in the North and news outlets could not be trusted. Everyone is corrupt, especially the military. Less than 30 insurgents sacking a barrack of soldiers — he says. How is that possible?
I asked about the massacre in Borno State. Did he care? I didn’t hear many Nigerians talking about it online. I don’t know what I was expecting. Declarations of outrage, heartbreak for his fellow countrymen. But I could tell, by Basil’s response, that I was being naïve.
Basil: My dear. It’s everybody’s business here…insurgents are at war with Nigeria.
I realized that this wasn’t a shocking terrorist attack. This is worse. This is a war, and it has been for a long time. A war that they have been fighting and we’ve been ignoring.
Basil: The U.S. is doing nothing. The interest has always been in our resources, nothing more. Even here in Africa, a country like South Africa that Nigeria practically kept alive when crises nearly drowned it, is doing nothing to assist us.
There’s a hopelessness in the way he talks about it. It’s not a hopelessness like I often feel here in the US as a black person. It’s not the hopelessness I felt after Michael Brown or Eric Gardner. This is a lack of power so complete that even to question it is cruelty.
But still I don’t really understand.
Basil: Things will fall in place after the elections. This is our biggest challenge in the history of the country. We will plan together as a nation again.
I don’t know if he really believes that or not. Actually, no — I do know that he believes it. Because that’s what he’s fighting for. That’s what his development project is about, that’s what his activism is about; fighting for a country that he loves and believes in.
He sounds like our father. Or at least what I imagine our father sounded like, from reading his doctoral thesis on the political history of Nigeria and from my grandfather’s stories about the passion he had for his home. From the fact that he went back there to teach political science and raise his children…well, most of them.
I think I’m starting to see what real grief for those killed in the massacre would look like, what real concern for those missing girls would feel like, and it’s nothing like my outraged Facebook posts. It’s in no fist-pounding 140-character manifestos I could have tweeted or retweeted. This grief is in the work. It’s in the fight you wake up with every day even though the rest of the world tells you that it’s pointless.
What did I know? I live in a country that hasn’t seen a war on its soil in 150 years, a country where one terror attack changes the entire fabric of the nation. What does my online “activism” look like to people who face terror every single day? Nigerians are on social media just as much as we are in the West, if not more. What does our collective silence look like to them? What do the solidarity marches for Charlie Hebdo look like? Where are their calls from world leaders expressing outrage at such horrific violence? How does it feel when their own president, Goodluck Jonathan, expresses condolences for the lost lives in France and none for the thousands of lost lives in his own country?
Imagine a continent so ravaged by colonization; a continent where infrastructure was built only to export its natural resources out. A continent where all traditional forms of self-sufficiency were brutally repressed. A continent where villages, tribes, families were ripped apart and reassembled to suit the needs of colonial powers. A continent that has seen war, genocide, famine and disease. We say “Oh, that’s just what Africa does. They’ll always be killing each other” and we shrug our shoulders.
But what Africa has been doing is surviving. Surviving in spite of the world’s efforts to destroy it. Surviving in spite of a lack of tools and resources. We see young democracies trying over and again to heal old wounds and build a new future. We see forgiveness of unspeakable acts in South Africa and Rwanda, in the hope of moving forward. We see communities ravaged by AIDS working to rebuild and care for abandoned young. We see parents in Borno State insisting on sending their girls to school in spite of the real danger of Boko Haram. The people of Africa still believe in Africa, even if we don’t.
Me: How old are you now?
Basil: Hahahahaha! I am growing old every day. I’m 31 now.
Of course he’s 31 now. He’s not the 22-year-old who first called me, excited to find out he had two siblings so close in age. Of course time passes the same way in Nigeria as it does here. Of course he is smart and funny and doing something really important. How offensively ignorant I have been to have missed the last nine years.
Basil: I plan to come to Harvard this year for some short courses.
Me: You’re coming to the U.S.?
Once again he’s the one to bridge the gap.
Africa is so far away. Not just physically, but emotionally, consciously. It’s this foggy blank spot in our minds sparsely populated with images of famine and conflict we have never known. To try to reach across all that — to try to find the connection in that fog and become invested in a place that to western eyes can seem so hopeless — it doesn’t even seem possible.
But my brother is there. I may not be able to see the streets of Port Harcourt through the fog just yet, but I am finally starting to see him.