In the otherwise uneventful North Carolinian town where I live, something happened at about midday last sunday. A motor bike and a power cord got entangled in a ghastly encounter. The bike man landed on the ground, limp and ungracefully sprawled on the side of the tarmac, looking quite dead. But he wasn’t. All this happened while I was reading Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation outside a café and stupidly sipping on hot coffee even though the afternoon was already rather hot. Naturally, I began to think as I kept on watching the events unfolding before me. At least, four bystanders rushed to the man’s aid, including a man who seemed to be a medical worker of sorts, and who had stopped his car on the road side just to help. Eventually, the emergency unit arrived and carted the half-conscious man away.
I began to ask myself why there persists this notion in non-western societies that the West is a socially drained and impersonal world where everyone is a stranger to everyone else. Clearly the event I had just witnessed is proof otherwise. But my thoughts returned to the part of town where the incident had just occurred and how it was put to a standstill if even for a half hour because of the misfortune of one anonymous fellow. The commotion of bystanders, the dramatic entry of the police, the machinelike efficiency of the medics, for just a single life?
For some reason, I could not get the death count of the Jos crisis in Nigeria out of my head. Images of death from preventable road accidents flooded my mind. And then I could not stop thinking about the cholera victims in Northern Nigeria and the Zamfara lead poisoning that claimed the lives of 400 children and the Independence Day bombing and the lives lost and the Dangote rice fracas and the lives lost. My mind was on a vertiginous spiral! Mind you, all these events are taking place within the span of a year or so.
But the questions that nagged me the most were the following: these lives frittering away in the winds of collective amnesia, where are they going? Are they duly counted before they pass away from our collective memory into oblivion? Do these losses leave us perplexed? Are these lives grieved? Are these lives even individually acknowledged? Have we written obituaries for each and every one? Finally, have we succeeded in avenging their blood? These questions are not mere rhetoric. If we do not give due account for these lost lives, if we do not sit down and think hard about why our societies keep producing dead, mutilated bodies that are quickly buried away and forgotten by us in their anonymity, if we do not attend to these considerations fully, we have ourselves to blame. Lives lost especially from violent acts come back and haunt the living. We think these lives just disappear? Oh no! They haunt the impossibility of our present, the absurdity of our interminable suffering, and the darkness of our future.
Am I saying that in Nigeria, we do not know how to grieve? Far from it! The problem is that grief, for us, appears to be a private experience the same way that bereavement is a private experience. The lives lost in the Jos crisis were grieved in the private world of the home, but as far as the national life is concerned, those lives remained anonymous. My conclusion is that grieving hardly ever takes on political significance for us.
Take for example the Independence Day bombing. The death of twelve people could not stop the nation in its tracks and compel it to contemplate the absurd and rather ominous nature of the event that has just taken place. Instead, the President has this to say: “It is the work of the devil, but the people will not die in vain. They have paid the supreme sacrifice to reveal the demons with beautiful names amongst us.” I cannot even begin to tease out the different levels of devilry at work in this statement. So I will content myself with the remark that the Independence celebrations went on as usual and that the nation is yet to give account for those lives.
I am not trying here to hastily compare cultures and pronounce one better than the other. Sometimes, I think that the West has perfected its social system at the cost of a certain kind of intimacy that grounds community. When I meet my neighbor in the car park outside our residence, it takes so much effort for us to exchange a greeting. The sad thing is that this perfunctory exchange pleasantry constitutes the extent of our relationship. I can contrast this to my childhood in Nigeria where a pot of soup was sometimes saved because a neighbor was kind of enough to part with some oil. I am the first to admit that our society is blessed with these intimate bonds, these micro moments of neighborly affection that I have not found in many other places. The problem appears to be that we somehow cannot apply the ethical value of this intimacy into broader social situations.
There is something to be said for a world where every life is accounted for. There are many people who would claim that that statement is philosophically unsound. Still, it is a political stand that I choose to take, one that is grounded on the conviction that in countries like Nigeria, there is an urgent need for a radical shift in the way life is handled.
If you are interested in the link between grieving and the question of life, check out Judith Butler’s book titled Precarious Life.