I am reading this book called We Need New Names by Bulawayo and this quote from its first few pages is stuck in my head – “ In our countries game, we first need to fight for country names. Everyone wants to be USA, Britain, Canada, France and Australia because these are country-countries. If you lose the fight, you just have to settle for countries like Dubai, South Africa, Tanzania and them. They are not country-countries but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Sudan, like Iraq or even here – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?”
While Charlie Hebdo and the hostage crisis fills every minute on my television, Nigeria is relegated to a ticker far down below. The death of 12 people leads us to proclaim Je suis Charlie, but I am yet to see one message claiming Je suis un Nigérian over the 2000 people killed as a part of the Boko Haram attack. We nod in agreement when we see posts on upholding the rhetoric of democracy and feel proud of being liberal when we see puerile humour picking on a scab that never properly healed.
As upper middle class, urban India our sympathies lie more with Paris or London than with Baga. Strange as it is, we are now more white than ever before. With our growing affluence we see these country-countries as our own, we relate to their xenophobia even when we ourselves would be migrants in these very countries and we share the unspoken feeling of “we are tolerant and so we are being taken for a ride”.
Our aspirations to be one of them has led us to relegate the conflict around Boko Haram as something to be a non-issue for us simply because it is happening in the Dark Continent. We have come to expect that the people in these countries will be poor, will fight amongst themselves, will continue to be displaced between indistinguishable boundaries and as a consequence many will die. Any problem here does not anger or frustrate us as long as it is not exported to our country or countries we would like to be (Ebola?).
It would be the easiest to paint all of this be it Charlie Hebdo or Boko Haram, in one single brush stroke of the monolithic Islamic threat. But it is far more complex. It is about this growing sense of “the other”, it is about the feeling of superiority to a culture unknown, it is about struggling with the idea of sharing social space which we righteously think belongs to just one faction and the fear of being displaced from what we believe to be our homes.
What happened in Paris and what is happening in Baga are equally terrifying but we need to be able to find a voice for both. We need to be able to empathise with stories of fear which may not be so close to home. We need to be Charlie of France as well as Muhammad Gava of Nigeria. We need to be able to fit in both these worlds and bring them together.
After all, nous sommes tous humains.