June 2014


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.

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Papa cropped#3

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.