Nigeria, Courage, and an After-Party
Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with a well-known author, and a former professor of mine. He is “originally” from Nigeria, though he hates the question (“Connecticut? No, but where are you originally from?”). When he is not teaching classes or writing and revising novels, he is a vocal opposition to the corrupt government in Nigeria, which has earned him the designation as an “enemy of the state.” He has a deep love and passion for his people, the Ibo, however many cracks he makes about no one ever being on time. I always love speaking with him, because he has fascinating – and tragic – stories of Nigeria and the politics there, in a culture I know very little of besides the one class I took of his about African literature, and the books we read. It was an honor to spend so much time with him, and to go with him to the bookstore for his reading. He was honored that I was there at all (which about blew me away).
After the reading (where they sold out of his new book), I wandered the bookstore while he did signings, and then was invited back to his hotel, where lots of his Nigerian friends would come to celebrate. Someone’s wife was unable to come, but made lots of food for everyone – a cultural tradition to “host” him while in their city. Wine flowed. And mostly, I sat and listened. Unsurprisingly, I was the only white person there. Occasionally they would speak in English, but they tended to prefer Ibo – some more than others, so I got a lot of half-stories. Sometimes, they would switch in the middle of a sentence.
After an hour or so, my professor caught my eye and said he hoped I was enjoying just listening to everyone, even if I don’t understand the words, just to hear the way the language worked. I did. Sometimes, I would stop trying to follow the words and who they were directed to, and close my eyes and listen, like he’d reminded me: the cadence and rhythm, the smooth way Ibo uses letters in ways I could never make sound pretty, or calming. And the way certain letters and vowels are used more harshly, with quick cutoffs after consonants. When the men spoke in English, I tried very hard to understand what they were debating: Nigerian politics, statesmen, who had stolen from the people, constant mediocrity – people they knew, even people they were related to. How terribly they are expected to treat the lower classes – my professor liked to tip the drivers what was probably double their salary for a day of driving, and a relation of his in the local government was annoyed, not to mention shocked. I tried very hard to understand the tribal relations, and how they played into politics, and who was in power, where. I did not want to ask any questions – that is not their job, and I really was enjoying just learning about Nigeria today. I did ask a few contextual questions. The word “Imo” kept coming up again and again, and I knew it was different from Ibo, so I asked someone next to me what it was. They very kindly explained that it was a state, of which Nigeria has 36. Having done reading on Ibo culture from novels, I was surprised to learn that Islamists have control in the country, and have worked with the “business hub” group of people to fight the Ibo, kill them, many of them.
I went to get a drink of water, and leaned against the wall next to the only other woman there. She didn’t get involved much in the very heated debates and stories, but would occasionally jump in. She asked me if I understood all that they were talking about, and I told her I didn’t, but I was trying to pick up on it. Gently, she began to describe the current Nigerian situation, and some history as to why it is in the state that it is in. She used three solo cups to describe three major groups, and their fighting. She began to talk about the assault on the Ibo, but stopped short of crying. She has lost family. We continued talking, some about Nigeria, some about her, some about me – she and everyone else wanted to learn more about my next personal adventure, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. That’s how my professor would introduce me: “This is a former student of mine, who came to see me, and she has a big adventure coming up – tell them!” – as if it was more fascinating than the fact that his new novel has been flying off bookshelves around the world and getting rave reviews. Life is weird.
We wrapped up the night – for the record, the reading was at 6pm, and it was now after midnight. People stood up to make a toast to my professor and the new book (which turned into long speeches, mostly in Ibo). Partway through the evening, I just kept thinking how surreal this scene was. “Here I am, sitting on a couch, in a hotel room full of brilliant and bold Nigerian men – and one woman – at this author after-party having heated political debates in a language I barely have any concept of.” I soaked in as much of it as I could. I’d planned on giving a very brief “thank you” to everyone there for tolerating me and being patient if I’d asked them questions, because it was such an honor to be included at all. The woman beat me to it, and told me I had courage just for being there, and thanked me for listening, and told me she hoped I would reflect well on the Nigerian people in the future in whatever means I had. I was flattered, but it wasn’t true. I quickly thanked everyone like I’d wanted to: for speaking with me, for letting me in. I am not the courageous one. These people, in this room, they are full of courage. They have been for years, and they will continue to be, continue to fight for the justice and resolution of conflicts in Nigeria. My professor is an enemy of the state in Nigeria. I am not the courageous one.
September, Tragedy, and TV
Hi there. I don’t have a Tumblr but as more is learned about the Navy Yard Shooting, I wanted to convey my own perspective as a resident of the region. Below is my own post from about 4:30pm today. But first I want to preface with a few things.
One of my friends made a comment (via Facebook) that the media coverage of this tragic event expressed little to no “shock.” That things like this aren’t shocking to the general public in the US these days. I admit I was torn - while I agree with her comment on the media, I still cling to the hope that this IS shocking, it IS hurtful, it IS tragic. And that people grasp that. Still, I found myself watching that last episode from Season 3 of West Wing (thanks to the collection of gifs from this blog, actually) and letting it guide me to a space of hurting, and maybe healing. While I cried for the person in the show who was shot and killed, it led me to be able to connect with the horrific - and real - events of today. I cried, finally. I cried for the victims, for their families: spouses, partners, children, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles. For their friends, their coworkers. 13 people were suddenly taken from us today. And isn’t it weird that I needed a push, from fictional TV shows no less, to fully absorb it? Or is it typical, because I live here, because I could know people in the Navy Yard area, and so I had to let the mental wall of shock I created down, just a little, to weep? To see how awful this whole thing really is.
This is what I’d written, earlier. But I wanted to express to you how weird, but how freeing it was, to let West Wing carry me through this, just a little.
I was going to write about the fun weekend I had – one of my best friends from high school got married and I was honored to be part of the bridal party. She was the most stunning bride.
But then, as I checked the news, got text alerts, triple checked Twitter, and refreshed several news articles at once, I knew I couldn’t. At least, not now. This morning, one, possibly two, shooters fired at and wounded over a dozen people at the US Navy Yard in Washington, DC. As of right now, 13 people are dead. At first, there were a million conflicting stories, each news agency wanting to be first – and in doing so, wrong. There have already been comparisons to the Red Line metro crash in 2009, which killed 9 people. I was here that summer, too.
I’ve lived in the “DMV” region for 3 years now (DC-MD-VA). The kind of security here is unlike any other. It’s disconcerting to get these kinds of reminders: I live in one of the most targeted, secure places in the country. My last post was on 9/11, and there have been various incidents since then. The DC Sniper. Shots fired near the Capitol, near the White House. Is everything related? Of course not. Violence comes with living anywhere, with living in cities. But the capital of the country, of the “free world,” cannot be overlooked. And so, while it alarms me when I see security officers with M16s (or close equivalent) as well as the traditional handguns and tasers, it’s also a not-so-subtle reminder of where I am. I go about my life not overly concerned with much else besides getting out the door on time, being productive at work, making time for friends, finding good food and things to do, and getting back to my loving bed at the end of a long day. This is interspersed with reminders that, by virtue of living in an area bustling with federal buildings, political organizations, and the people who make this country’s major decisions, I am one of the targets. Did the shooter(s) have a nit with the US Navy? The US military? The US in general? Maybe. Maybe not. These mass shootings tend to have very little relevance to who the victims are – they are random, they are just people, they are just the random innocent people, so that we become scared. As we saw from 9/11, as we see from Boston Strong, and as we will see from this, we are more than that.
Still, it doesn’t do much to take the edge off when I see extra police officers keeping an eye on every metro station on seemingly random days; when the ripple effect of one incident leads to closure of several other buildings and evacuations; when, as in today, the region receives a shelter-in-place alert from both local and national police forces. When the people who spend their careers protecting us get killed in the relative safety of their home offices. The US Navy Yard ought to feel like one of the safest locations for these men and women. Today proved, again, that even the safest places have a risk.
My heart and prayers goes out to all victims today, along with families, friends, and coworkers, as it does whenever anything of this nature happens. Mother Nature has also had some things to say this week: in the midst of our wedding festivities, flooding rolled into Colorado, destroying over 1,000 homes. The “unaccounted for” number continues to decrease, but keep Colorado in your hearts as well as this other tragedy unfolds.
Submitted by the Tumblr-less Sarah
TW on the documentary for abuse, general prison fuckery. Submitted by the tumblr-less Sarah!
I just finished watching this amazing documentary on PBS. It’s called Herman’s House, and it’s streaming through August 7, and you need to go watch it here.
Herman Wallace is part of the “Angola 3,” and has been living in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (often called Angola) for over 40 years - 36 of which have been in solitary confinement. 36 years, in a 6x8 foot cell. Initially sentenced for bank robbery, he was accused of murdering a prison guard (without evidence tying him to the crime) and his appeals continue to result in the same response: you can’t leave. When Jackie Sumell, an artist from New York, met Herman, she knew she had to do something to get him - or his mind - out of Angola. So she asked him what his dream house would look like. What resulted was something beautiful, and heartbreaking.
I’m still wiping tears from my eyes.I’m still in awe about the whole thing. You need to watch this, you need to hear their story.
To help, visit http://hermanshouse.org.