Will The West Remember Me, Then?


Zuma Press Via TNS


I feel helpless when I think about Nigeria. Five thousand miles separate my family and me, but phone calls cage me in the fearful suspense that my brother, my aunt and baby cousins could die at any moment. Since the Islamist insurgency began in 2009 with Boko Haram extremists at the forefront, Nigeria has never been the same. She has lost her liberty of religion, of education and more importantly, of life. As I boarded a plane to New York in 2011, I carried with me the remnants of the four bomb blasts from the previous year leading up to my departure. Despite Nigeria’s development since her independence, she has never dealt with the frequency of explosives this powerful. These blasts foreshadowed a nation divided, and even maybe destroyed. And on that plane, as I travelled to a different continent for college, I didn’t only feel a lingering sense of betrayal, I felt a tug of war between anger and resolution because I knew that as my people died, most of the world would remain unaware of our turmoil. I knew that as we suffered, not enough people would write about us or protest the injustice of Boko Haram or even be moved at all to discuss the gradual obliteration of a great nation. And the worst pain of all is that I knew that I couldn’t do anything about it.

It’s easy to pull up information about the Boko Haram insurgency on the internet. Even Wikipedia has a nice timeline of the bomb blasts and records of the tens of thousands who have been killed since Boko Haram formed in 2002. Still, to many people, especially some I’ve spoken with here in the U.S., Nigeria is just a spot of blue ink on the edge of a gigantic table cloth. She’s just one of those “African places” the British colonized, with generations of slaves and poverty-stricken individuals dying within the branches of big, sturdy trees. Along with the other 55 countries, Nigeria has been boxed into one country many still mistake as Africa, and thrown into the “not important” pile.

But Nigeria is important. She is important to those of us who grew up with the teachers who caned us if we failed a test if we didn’t study hard enough, or the lady in the market who puts an extra orange in the bag even after selling her oranges to us below her usual price or the kind faces on the street who always greet us as we walk by. Boko Haram is not just destroying the largest economy in Africa and one of the top petroleum producers and exporters in the world, it is also ruining the only home that over 170 million people have ever known. And while that home may not be filled with some of the luxuries of the West, it is still rich in love, care and a concern for one another’s growth.

As a child, Nigeria was my comfort. I delighted in the hawkers selling freshly-baked bread early in the morning, belting out in Yoruba words I never understood but took to mean, “Come buy some bread!” I cherished the drive to school each weekday, the honking traffic on Apapa road, and even the fumes of black industrial waste puffing into the sky and polluting the earth. I found peace among the mountains surrounding Abuja, beneath the rushing Gurara waterfalls, within the sun’s embrace, whose warming presence remained long after dusk. Beauty resided in everything, and whenever the time came to pray for my country, I would always ask God to keep Nigeria just as it was. But change is one of the most inevitable things in life. Once Boko Haram began to preach their message against Western education with violence, Nigeria’s present began to disintegrate.
Soon, it wasn’t enough to have the coexistence of a mosque and a church on the same street.

Soon, shopkeepers who sometimes helped each other with sales became suspicious of the other if either was Muslim. Soon, it wasn’t enough that children from diverse backgrounds attended school together. Schools became prejudiced against anyone with a Hausa name or from a Muslim background. And with this breakdown of the peace and love that once united our nation, Boko Haram literally and figuratively began to steal our hope for a better tomorrow. With the abduction of almost 300 school girls in Chibok, Borno State, and nine girls later in a village north-east of Nigeria, Boko Haram has effectively maintained their opinion on education, especially female education. The girls have purportedly been sold as brides in neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon, while some remain in the hands of extremist militants in the Sambisa forest of Borno State. The most frightening part of this is that these girls, who were mostly Christian, have been forced to convert to Islam and to marry Boko Haram terrorists whose leader, Abubakar Shekau, insists that slavery is a part of Islam and that girls from the age of 9 should be married off rather than in school. The Islam this man preaches is not the same Islam I knew about while growing up. If children are being stolen and hard-wired to believe this terrible misinterpretation, then what hope is there for Nigeria?

I’ve stopped waiting for people to ask me how my family is faring. People can’t ask about issues that they don’t know or even care about. Last week alone, extremism was brought up three times in some of my classes. Al-Qaeda. ISIS. ISIS. Nothing about Boko Haram. Why isn’t Boko Haram constantly on national news in the West? Aren’t buildings collapsing? Aren’t people dying? Is it when Boko Haram succeeds in replacing Federal Law with Shari’a Law that Nigeria will garner strong public attention? Who talks about the Chibok girls anymore? What happened to #bringbackourgirls? Beyoncé’s surprise album release in 2013 probably held public attention longer than the kidnapped girls. People die almost every month from some bomb blast in Nigeria, but who talks about that? Yet, the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris shook the West so much that even some of my class time was dedicated to discussing it. Why are some lives worth more than others? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

These days, I mourn my helplessness in solitude. Sometimes, I place my palms on the television screen, the heat of it seeping through, the burst of colors and scurrying images providing a glimpse into my home — so near but so far. It is during these times that I miss my childhood. I wish Nigeria never changed. I wish I can take her back to the time when the educated and uneducated ate together, when children played with each other regardless of their religion, when mothers could fearlessly send kids to buy something from the nearest aboki, when our nation was still “bound in freedom, peace and unity.”

My father always talks about life before the Nigerian civil war of 1967. “No one wants another war,” he says. “It’s like remaining alive even though the flames burn you.” But he’s wrong. The war has begun. Nigeria has metamorphosed into a minefield rather than a blooming garden. A graveyard rather than paradise. A tale of horror. And the scariest part of this is that I am five thousand miles away, just another pebble on the seashore. All I can do during my little TV moments is to mentally cross the screen toward my family. I suffer with them. Five thousand 5000 miles away, I might just be an observer; but if Nigeria dies, I die with her, too. Will the West remember me, then?

Correction: This article previously incorrectly printed that the Nigerian Civil War occurred in 1960 and has been updated to 1967.