I just returned from a very full 3 weeks of road and air travel that took me to London, Uganda and Kenya. Yesterday as I was about to enter my apartment building in New York with my luggage, a neighbor who held the door open for me seemed relieved to see me. I recognized her but don’t know her personally. She went on to tell me of the Malaysian Airlines jet that had been shot down over Ukraine while I was in the air, killing all 298 on board…

It was a sobering welcome home and yet also an indication of the volatility of the world we live in. There were a number of these reminders during my journey.

The first of which was hearing – a day late on July 4- of the US terrorism alert on the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. I’d come through the airport 4 days before but a colleague I was going to be traveling with had arrived there the previous day. By all accounts, the airport was calm and thankfully, there was no incident.

Several days later, in Bundibugyo, a district in the southwest of Uganda where I lived in 2006-2007, fighting broke out between rival ethnic groups. In fact there were multiple coordinated attacks in the space of a few hours on the afternoon of July 5. Reports suggested up to 80 people were killed, both civilians and uniformed personnel and quickly this remote place was unexpectedly propelled into the international news. The fighting came as close as 8 kilometers from where we were staying and a strike on a trading center much closer was threatened but never occurred. This prompted an evacuation of the mission team we were visiting, cutting short our already brief visit by more than 24 hours. Fortunately we were never in any danger and as non-Ugandans were not targeted, but it made for a dramatic and tense return to a place I used to call home.  Shortly after we drove out, the road was closed once again due to more fighting and the team who’d evacuated remained out of the district for a full week. It seems the tensions have been quelled – at least for now.

Then, in Nairobi for the first time, I heard repeated references to the high crime rate and found myself more concerned than usual about whether and when I moved around with my passport and where my money was stashed. I stayed with friends who placed a heavy chain on a metal grate to their apartment each evening essentially barricading themselves in, even though their building was in a gated compound where 24 hour security guards hovered by a locked gate. Often when we rode around town, the windows were kept up and the AC on though I think this was less to prevent crime and more so we could hear each other speaking above the intensity of the traffic.

Suffice it to say, I’m glad to be back in New York because it’s familiar and it’s home. And the truth of the matter is: God is here – as He is everywhere.  Even when planes get shot out of the sky and groups that have lived side by side struggle over power and land rights, and urban crime makes us feel less secure.

He is in this place.

 

 

The details came out in pieces. First I learned that a young woman in an elite public high school in Manhattan had taken her life. She was a junior (15 or 16 perhaps?) and the inciting incident appeared to have been that a teacher caught her cheating on an exam. The press had vilified the teacher, publishing both her name and showing her photo. The girl apologized, left a note on her exam, ostensibly went to the bathroom, and disappeared from the school. She made her way to the edge of the Hudson River and waded into it fully clothed until she disappeared. She didn’t know how to swim, nor did the fisherman who watched her, in horror.

During the meeting where I heard about this tragedy, a woman who is the school’s PTA president got a text and quietly slipped out. The girl’s body had washed up the day before on the river bank 5 days after she disappeared. Family members were gathering for the funeral at that very hour. The PTA prez had gone to represent the parents, unsure if any other parents or teachers would attend.

At the end of the meeting, I learned more. The young woman was a Muslim so I thought she was from the middle East. Then I heard she was an African, though it wasn’t clear what her country of origin was. Knowing she was a fellow African, I felt a profound sadness for her family and community. I wondered what sorts of struggles this young woman had had as an immigrant or in having immigrant parents.

Later that afternoon, I couldn’t help myself. I sought out on-line stories about the incident to find out more. As soon as I saw the girl’s name in print, my heart lurched.

She had a Yoruba name which meant, to me, she wasn’t just an African. She was a Nigerian.

Though brilliant and probably destined for great things – she’d expressed a desire to become a doctor – and her classmates described her as witty and athletic, it seems she’d had a troubled past. There were reports from neighbors of loud arguments with her mother and another time when she apparently disappeared for 3 days. I wondered what other warning signs there might have been that were ignored, or more likely misunderstood, by those closest to her. I considered whether her fragile mind had been made more vulnerable given the sad state Nigeria is in right now and the backdrop of knowing several hundred high school girls had not been kept safe within the boundaries of their school compound. Or was there such intense pressure to succeed, up and out of the South Bronx neighborhood where her family lived, that added additional psychological weight to the struggles she was already wrestling with? We’ll never know.

This terribly sad event made me think of this encouraging piece written by public health physician Ike Anya that came out in Granta a couple of years ago: People Don’t Get Depressed in Nigeria, http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/People-Dont-Get-Depressed-in-Nigeria.

Nigerians, like people from anywhere else, despite what we might wish to think, aren’t exempt from the demons of mental health, regardless of where we happen to live. In fact to be living in Nigeria right now might contribute to higher levels of mental health dysfunction, given the extreme levels of stress and the damage being done to the national psyche, from the lack of leadership and the terror of Boko Haram’s tactics.

I grieve for this young woman’s lost life, for her parents, for her classmates and teachers, and for her extended Nigerian community. I pray her tragic ending will not have been in vain.

A week ago today in Jos, at a gathering where people were watching the Champion’s League Final, a hotly contested soccer match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid, another bomb went off. This time only 3 people were killed. Tragic, but fortunately the loss of life wasn’t significantly greater.

It was the third bomb in Jos in a single week, the first time I recall that ever happening in the town I was born in. Earlier in the week, two bombs about half an hour apart killed 118 people at last report. All attacks are thought to have been committed by Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group that is creating havoc, primarily in the north of Nigeria. Their attacks are unrelenting and now reported by the BBC to be a daily occurrence: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27641730.

Next month will signal 15 years since my father, who was born in Jos, also died there. It’s hard to believe so many years have slipped away since then. I still miss him terribly, especially as the anniversary of his passing approaches.

Papa was born in Jos, which is in the geographic center of the country known as the “middle belt”, but had a Fulani mother who was from the northeast, near the border with Cameroon. In his early years as a lawyer, he represented clients from the then North Eastern State and travelled to its capital, the city of Maidugari, multiple times a year. I recall one such trip when he took me with him. Two memories stand out. It was by far the hottest place I’d ever been to and the whirring standing fan in our hotel room did nothing to lull me to sleep. With Papa snoring beside me, I tried to will myself to doze off but I felt like I was in an oven. The other thing I recall about that trip was how fine the sand along the streets was,  similar to that you’d find on a beach. Little did I realize then that the Sahara Dessert was already encroaching southward (and still is).

My father would be absolutely heart-broken at the violence and lack of religious tolerance Boko Haram seem to display. His mother was a Muslim and his father was a Christian from the southern Delta area. (Papa would also be appalled at the lack of leadership from Nigeria’s President, also from the Delta but that’s for another post). Such “mixed” marriages were common and Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully within the same families.

Boko Haram apparently want to create their own Muslim state across the north of Nigeria and use a system of Islamic law, called sharia. But Nigeria is far too heterogeneous for that. They are waging a “war” they can’t win.

For this reason, I’m glad my father is no longer alive.

Nigeria, where I was born, is in crisis. In the space of a few weeks, 200+ secondary (high) girls have been kidnapped and abducted from a school in the northeast of the country (by men dressed as soldiers) and this unprecedented horror has been sandwiched by two bombs in Abuja the capital, which have killed almost 100 people between them. Untold others have been injured. The nation is under seige, the government appears not to know how to respond, and people are grieving, frightened, and angry.

The radical Muslim fundamentalist group, Boko Haram – who also were behind the bombs – has just come forward to claim responsibility for girls’ abduction. Some of the girls managed to escape in the days following which is how we know of how this terrible event unfolded. Read more here:   http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2014/04/nigerias-stolen-girls.html

And check out the names of those still missing here:  https://www.facebook.com/fjgriffin/posts/10203696377830243.  They are not merely a horrible statistic. They are our daughters and sisters and aunties. Rumors abound that they have been sold into marriage over the northern border into Chad and/or Niger but the truth of the matter is, no one really knows exactly where they are or most importantly how to get them back. (Or if this still even remains possible.)

The response from President Goodluck Jonathan to all of these events has been pathetic and embarrassing, as the leader of most populous country in Africa: mostly silence, meanwhile carrying on with trips for his presidential campaign for elections slated to happen next year – where’s he been seen dancing while the rest of the nation is in shock. The irony of course is if he would just step up and truly lead this nation during this time of crisis and mobilize a response – a coordinated effort in which both the military and ordinary citizens can participate – he would have no problem convincing Nigerians that he’s worthy of their votes.

Check out this plea from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria’s best known female writer: http://www.thescoopng.com/exclusive-chimamanda-adichie-president-want/

This is the President 160 million Nigerians desperately need. And we need it NOW.

Pulitzer-prize winning writer Katherine Boo chose these 7 words to describe herself when she was being introduced at the NY Public Library on Wednesday night.

Several writer friends on different occasions mentioned Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which prompted me to finally read it. Frankly it was tough going at the beginning. There were so many characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But knowing I had a chance to hear Boo talk about writing this book was incentive enough to keep me  at it. And by the end, it was a journey well worth traveled.

She has a brilliant mind. As does Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx interviewed Boo. (Random Family about survival in the South Bronx is a subject close to my heart having worked there for 9 years where I frequently encountered mothers and daughters that closely resemble Coco and other young women in LeBlanc’s book. ) The conversation between these two MacArthur “genius” Fellows was both rich and rambling. Though both women had been influenced by the other’s work, they’d never met in person before. So we as the audience got to eavesdrop on two new friends sharing stories and swapping trade secrets.

Several gems Boo gave us that night:

“What I do in the reporting comes out of my weaknesses. For example because I’m shy about talking to public figures, I’d spend my time filling out freedom of information requests. ” (In doing so, her data gathering and crossing checking of  facts and stories became a strength.) “And because I have a terrible visual memory, I used a camera and videos.”

” ‘Their griefs are transient’ which is something Jefferson said about the slaves. People feel this about the poor (as if their losses and pain are somehow different or less traumatic than they are for others who don’t also struggle with the complexties of poverty….)

“[In my work], I hope to leave the community better off.”

Several gems of LeBlanc’s:

“Dead ends have been my best friends.”

“In the future, I’ll always use real names. In my book, it was less of an issue for them than I expected. Some of them got attention in the press and have gone on to do great things.’

If you have any interest in fresh perspectives which seek to understand the lives and challenges of those who survive on the fringes, pick up either of these provocative and sobering books.

 

 

 

Monday April 7 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 were killed over a period of just 3 months. I was living in NYC then, and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t recall the start of this terrible event. It was only in retrospect, when it was all over, and a nation’s psyche had been shattered that I began to take on board the size and scope and depth of this tragedy by watching films and reading books about what had taken place.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Emmanuel Katangole’s biting expose about that time, Mirror to the Church, with colleagues in a book club at the office.  In Mirror, Katangole reminds us that “the nightly news in every American homes displayed images of the bodies that were being destroyed in Rwanda. But most Americans were more interested in the O.J. Simpson trial in the spring of 1994″ (p. 38). Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, so this statement isn’t 100% accurate. We weren’t watching the trial – that came the following year – but by the time the genocide was fully underway, we were easily distracted by the details of Brown Simpson’s death and the accusations swirling around her celebrity husband as her killer.

I had a deja vu moment of a similar scenario when on Monday I went online to try to find a story I’d heard several days before about a Senegalese peacekeeper who’d saved literally hundreds of lives during the genocide. On the BBC, when I clicked on news about Africa, I was immediately met with a large photo of Oscar Pistorius with his face buried in his hands:  another celebrity athlete on trial for murdering his blonde beautiful girlfriend. And we are mesmerized. This too is a tragic, terrible situation but why should it beg for more attention than recalling the deaths of hundreds of thousands ordinary Rwandans?

Fortunately, I was able to eventually find the story of the Mbaye Diagne and it was even more impressive, heart-rending, and redemptive than I’d recalled.

Read it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_6954/index.html  and be encouraged that in the midst of that terrible madness, courage and sacrifice reigned alongside the mayhem.

And yes, let’s remember differently this time. Let’s not be seduced by the razzle dazzle of celebrity.

This weekend, I had the wonderful pleasure of attending a launch of the latest issue of Black Renaissance Noire (www.nyubrn.org) an artsy literary journal, which the Institute of African-American Affairs @ NYU puts out three times a year. I’d never heard of Black Renaissance Noire, edited by the esteemed writer and poet Quincy Troupe, until my friend Linda was contacted by Quincy who wanted to include an excerpt from her forth-coming book about Toni Cade Bambara.

A Joyous Revolt, the first ever biography of Bambara is coming out later this spring. In 1970, Bambara published The Black Woman, a collection of essays and poetry that she’d edited, “igniting a new political movement within the Black community (p. xvii).” Having begun a new conversation about African-American women’s lives and stories, Bambara went on to publish novels (i.e.The Salt Eaters), short stories (i.e. Gorilla, My Love), and make documentaries (i.e. The Bombing of Osage Avenue). With each genre she tackled,  she pushed the boundaries of identity and dignity a little bit more. For this ground-breaking book on Bambara’s rich and varied life, Linda conducted 50+ interviews with those who knew and worked with her, including writers like Toni Morrison and Jan Carew and filmmaker Louis Messiah.

At NYU on Friday night, one of the others featured in the new spring issue of Black Renaissance Noire was Ghanian-born poet Kwame Dawes, a Jamaican who’s now a Professor @ the University of Nebraska. He told of meeting Bambara at a conference in Toronto when he was a fledgling, no-name writer, toiling away behind a closed door, wondering what he was doing there and whether he would ever really make it. Out of the crowd – Dawes led us to believe there weren’t too many others there that looked like them(!) – she picked him out, without knowing him beforehand, and invited him to spend the day with her. They hung out, talked, and she fed him. She was a well-known and established writer by this point. During the course of their time together, she encouraged him to keep writing, to keep plugging away at his craft. They kept up somewhat by email as she continued to encourage him, but that was it. Today Dawes is the author of 18 collections of poetry, as well as two novels and several anthologies. He’s currently working on a project that looks at the church’s response to HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

As I reflected on Dawes’ story about Bambara, I realized that he had similarly encouraged me to write. I didn’t meet him at a conference and we didn’t spend the day together, but probably about 15 years ago, a friend of his and mine took me along to hear him recite poetry. I recall the force of his passion in a poem that was a tribute to Bob Marley, and I was intrigued that he was a Christian poet making art that the mainstream culture was embracing.  Afterwards, we all went out to a Jamaican restaurant (Rice and Peas?) in midtown. Over dinner, I tentatively confided a fledgling interest in writing – I was not even sure then what I thought I might write about – but without knowing much more about me, he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so. “Just write,” he urged several times, and then again when we were saying goodbye, and “try to do it every day,” he added. I nodded, thinking to myself how unlikely – unrealistic even – that would be.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me close to a decade to put his advice into practice.

When I heard Dawes pay tribute to Bambara for encouraging him in the generous way that she did, I realized I had benefited from him. The words he said to me – which he didn’t remember saying, he didn’t recall even meeting me – were an encouragement nonetheless, and I was grateful to be able to thank him for that.

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