June 6, 2014
Dear ASRF community, warm greetings from Ithaca, New York. I hope you have had a wonderful year so far.
These are trying times for African societies. The ongoing violence in many countries has personally affected some ASRF members and raises difficult questions for us all. For me, the Boko Haram crisis in particular, resurrects some hard-hitting queries about the relationship between my research agenda and the lives of the children, men and women who struggle to survive in the inferno of Africa’s horrendous war zones.
Do we as scholars, actually have any real answers regarding the terror conundrum, deepening corruption, political disasters, environmental catastrophes and intensification of poverty and insecurity across the continent? Are our academic researches, conference hubs, lectures, and publications capable of influencing the extreme distress around us? Are we producing scholarship that can speak in a language that resonates, captures and expresses the turbulence, pain and hopes of those we study?
Patience Ozokwor, aka Mama G. is one of Nigeria’s most famed cinema stars. Her penchant for cold-hearted screen characters is immortalized in the Mama G callous one sided curled-up-lip sneer. But a few weeks ago, the nation saw her heartbroken beyond theatrics, fallen on her knees in the dusty street, in the vanguard of a ‘Bring Back our Girls’ mass mobilization in Nigeria. Of course, Mama G. desperate tearful pleas for the return of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls had been replicated numerous times across Nigeria and the world by both the famous and the unknown.
There is much fodder here for our analytical exercises. We could debate the value of hashtag activism, the efficacy of democracy by technology and peace by facebook. We could devote entire conferences to scathing denunciations of the ambiguous feminisms invoked by the “Bring Back our Girl” (BBOG) movement, the silences on the coercive conscription of boys and the absence of a parallel global mobilization around the devastating problems in other African countries. I know all of this. Nevertheless, for many reasons, Chibok has become a somewhat unique signifier in the annals of Nigeria’s history.
The young terrified, yet still resilient heroines of Chibok had done something for a nation numbed by multiple traumas: with cities and streets increasingly unrecognizable in the aftermath of bombings, corpses tossed in wells and ditches without the signifiers bestowed by proud parents at naming ceremonies, and a deepening climate of fracture and distrust. Amidst such anomie, the small community of Chibok has invoked a confrontation with the depth of our vulnerability and a re-awakening of our outrage. Why?
After all, hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers and children across the Sudan, Uganda, Liberia, Egypt, Rwanda, Eritrea, South Africa, Kenya and so on, have endured that agony of loss, and the traumatic senselessness of violence that decapitates, rapes, tortures, displaces and creates a future that is so fragile its survivors question their continued existence.
The kidnapped girls of Chibok have not come to occupy such a place in our national psyche just because they are young, nor as many in the West would like to believe, simply because they are girls. It is not merely that they are victims of a dangerous insurgency driven by an inchoate cocktail of a malignant pseudo-religious ideology, a religious imperialist and colonizing vision and the heady testosterone of power and ambition. Furthermore, while the twitter universe played a powerful role in this mobilization, the girls did not become iconic symbols of our broader national struggle simply because they are the subjects of a providential viral campaign.
THE CALL OF CHIBOK
Alongside other things, the Chibok terrorist abductions symbolize the painful burden of our realization that we seem to have another chance to wrestle with fate, an opportunity to stop a living agony, to recreate a narrative of which collective dreams are made. We have been granted the chance to face and challenge our fears, to expose our shared values, hopes, our longings for a miracle, for justice and healing, and perhaps to do at least one thing right in a nation that has gone so wrong. It has indeed become difficult for many Nigerian activists to imagine our continued future as a nation if we are unable to apprehend a dream of national self-actualization and restitution of sorts, embedded in the possibility of recovering the children stolen from their parents, their communities, their own dreams, hopes and lives, and from us. At the same time, the process of searching and hoping forces us to face and admit our deep weaknesses, our incapacities, our failures and the feeble nature of all that we have flaunted in the guise of political and security systems. At the very moment when we want and desperately need to be strong for our children and communities under attack, each action we take painfully reveals us to be ignobly weak as we repeatedly face failures of the kind that breaks the spirit.
Fathers, cousins and brothers searching instantly and bravely for their missing daughters in a vast forest were forced to retreat within a mile of the location because they lack the support of any police force or military detachment and were obviously not capable of taking on hundreds of terrorists armed with AK-47s. But sadly for those fathers, they will also possibly live with the undeserved sense of their failure and self-recriminations, as will the school principal, boarding house-mistresses and the feeble security guards.
We all want the girls to be safe, secure and well. We also need them to come back, today or tomorrow because as people who for so long have managed to survive by denying the intensity of our pain and suffering in a dysfunctional nation, we have finally trodden that painful path of exposure of our deep collective agony (I make no claims here to the sentiments of our leaders). We have cried on television, we have tried to sleep and had nightmares in imagining the deep suffering of children who have been removed from our reach of comfort. We cannot even lay claim to the type of sorrowful resolution of imagining our children nestled in the arms of God.
Like their parents, family and immediate community, Nigerians have been forced to journey past the psychological walls we had erected for our survival, socially, politically, and even academically. We built those walls to sustain our sanity and ability to still laugh, to celebrate weddings and births even when we drive past rotting corpses, incapacitated victims of heinous crimes or vehicle accidents, or when we read of state violence in the Delta and yet have to pump the gas that proceeds of such atrocity. We used those bulwarks of emotional detachment to keep living when we knew our hospitals had become a lotto game of life and death, that politicians were ‘renting’ troves of our underage schoolgirls to entertain their geriatric weekend frenzies and using roving gangs of our young men to enliven their electoral marches. Walls had made it possible to live with these realities.
Across the continent and in the Diaspora, peoples of African descent have continued to struggle amidst the antinomies of our lives by erecting fortifications that help us survive emotionally and psychologically, only selectively lowering those ramparts at critical junctures such as the unified battle against apartheid.
But the Chibok daughters are still alive, and refuse to remain behind those walls. So, our indifferent politicians are being pushed to understand that their political futures may rest on their ability to conjure tears, to tactically pretend if need be, an empathy they had never had to feel in their frenzied electoral campaigns for office. The BBOG protesters are insisting a flamboyant and insulated political elite must contemplate what it means to actually seek or pretend to understand the suffering of a small subset of their citizens, to imagine what security and insecurity means, and how dearly, their rampant corruption has cost this nation. Whew! This is no easy task as we saw in the viral video showcasing Nigerian first lady’s verbal assault on the Chibok representatives whom she had apparently summoned to “assist them” to find their children. Encountering the undesired evidence of a failed state as she interrogated them, she resorted to calling on the judgment of the divine to express her own helplessness … God dey O!
Let us search inward now. Many of us also – citizens, scholars, mothers, fathers and children across the world – are journeying with the abducted girls, struggling deeply as we are forced by Shekau’s insanely vicious boasts to re-imagine our children. We cannot pretend to ourselves, because now we know that they have been dragged from the recent memories of their own identities powerfully captured in the photograph of one lovely school girl in a pant suit and others in colorful outfits and now forcibly transitioned into those listless faces peering out of blue and black hijabs on a dusty ground surrounded by bearded killers brandishing AK-47’s.
Our world has changed along with theirs. I know that this is why I repeatedly meet people who sadly inform me that they no longer follow the news – the pain that follows the vulnerability of knowledge, helplessness and failure is overwhelming.
However, in many ways, for Nigeria’s activists, both the old guard and the newcomers, the confidence to keep fighting together for a possible national future seems to rest in this singular opportunity we have been given to fulfill our promise to nurture and protect our young, our communities, our values. In this agonizing instance, we have not been left with body bags, but with a shaming, agonizing void, and a tender, scared and desperate hope that in place of this void, will someday dwell a future embodied in the lives of each child returned, scarred and altered, but still returned to us. Perhaps this is partly why so many from Nigeria, Africa and across the world, are invested in Chibok in a way they have (unfortunately) not responded to the recent victims of bombings in Nigeria’s other cities.
There is an unstated desire for some kind of redemption through hope, to find a vision that lends us strength. We might acknowledge the impossibility of erasing what these weeks and months have done, but hang onto the possibility that we can draw from the desperate energy we find in mobilizing around the Chibok tragedy to succeed at laying a new foundation, working together to reclaim a dream, accomplishing something positive, rejecting the finality of the power of terrorists to destroy the lives and future of our children.
So despite the analytically flawed messages and problematic ideological framings of many protestors, the Chibok kidnappings demands from me as a scholar that I be willing to embrace the language of pain, vulnerability and engagement in my scholarship. Each image I see of parents sunken in the depths of hopelessness demands that my research, work and activism speak to those realities. I have decided to embrace and travel beyond the hash tag activism, because as an African scholar, I know we cannot afford to stay in the safe gardens of the traditional borders and languages of a discipline that teaches scholars to avoid using the “I” pronoun and often prides itself on the avoidance of social pain that presumably beclouds reason. On the contrary, it must be said that anguish can clarify and discipline academia. It is why I have chosen to study the politics of memory, of disaster, of development and democracy.
ASRF has always had an embedded commitment to the various communities and issues we study. Today, the African continent seems to demand something deeper, more substantive and visionary of us, if we hope for the survival of our peoples. So in the same way we have started to remove some of the walls built to limit our vulnerability to trauma in certain circumstances, we have to do the same in solidarity with other victims whether they are in Jos, Soweto, Kampala, Monrovia, Addis, Cairo, Nairobi or Banjul.
Our governments may be floundering disastrously in developing effective military and strategic approaches to terror even as foreign nations jostle for influence. Nevertheless, as we conduct research and write papers, let us also remember that there is an indisputable and rather desperate need for a collective humanitarian resistance, where our willingness to stand in solidarity through material shared support for the victims of violence and fearless political engagement may help prevent descent into genocide. Here is one opportunity:
I look forward to hearing from you and reading your comments on our website (www.asrfonline.org ). Please remember to register for the Association of Third World Studies (ATWS) conference, which will be held in Denver, Colorado, October 16-18, 2014. More information is available on the regonline atws conference website
Best wishes for a more peaceful and productive year.
The President, African Studies and Research Forum Inc.
Department of Politics
Ithaca College, NY, 14850