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Monday, May 12, 2014

Chibok Has Changed the Way I Will Write About Africa

Nigerian women marched in Abuja to protest handling of the rescue effort
When I first heard about the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian girls who were in school to take their finals, I was taken back to my own boarding school days. Specifically, I remembered "staying time" when we the Form Five and Sixth Form Girls stayed on campus in the absence of our other schoolmates to prepare for our G.C.E. 'O' and 'A' Level exams.

Taken by students across West Africa, and graded under the rigorous supervision of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), the stakes were/are incredibly high as far as not only passing these standardized finals, but "blowing" (or acing) them as we used to say. To pass with mediocre marks was almost the same as failing because it meant you would not be able to secure placement in a respectable school for Sixth Form or earn a spot in one of the then three universities in the country; effectively sealing your caste.

Depending on your results—which were posted publicly—you would be divided into four groups:

*"Distinction" which meant you had earned all or almost all “1s” (the equivalent of straight "A"s) on the eight or nine subjects you had written exams for and earned an aggregate score that was anywhere from 8 to 12. A distinction guaranteed admission to the top schools in the country, and, depending on how distinct your score, and your circumstance, could mean a scholarship to a foreign university.

*"Division One", which meant you'd likely gotten a mix of "1"s and "2"s, maybe an errant "3" or "4" but your aggregate had not exceeded 24.

*"Division Two" which meant your aggregate was between 25 and 36.

*"Division Three" which meant you had barely passed, or failed.

If you fell into Division Two or Three, you had to take the exams over again if you wanted to get a good school placement. (I got a Two (aggregate 26, thanks to low marks in Physics and Chemistry), but I was not trying to get into a Sixth Form secondary school as I was leaving for America.)

As a result of the stakes, there was a thriving exams economy. Woefully underpaid teachers basically charged a semester to a year's worth of fees for prep classes before these region-wide tests, and after for those who had passed poorly or failed.

I remember “staying time” as a stressful period, fraught with all-nighters and desperate attempts at rote memorization. But it was also the most fun I had as a student in Ghana.

After three years of harassment by certain dormmates and classmates, and adjustment to Ghanaian life, the half of which I alluded to in Powder Necklace, I finally had a small but strong crew of girlfriends. When we weren't studying, we were taking magazine quizzes, talking boys, or braiding our Afros in anticipation of graduation when we would no longer be compelled by school rules to keep our hair short. We were also imagining the future.

It was a beautiful time when the guardrails were pushed so we could venture past some boundaries. Yes, the Lights Out bell rang, but no one was enforcing it. Neither was anyone making sure we didn't smuggle food from the dining hall to our dorms, or worrying us about attendance. All we had to do was study.

It’s been 21 years since I stayed at Mfantsiman, but I imagine the girls at Government Girls' Secondary School carrying on much like we did. Studying, allowing themselves guilty pleasure breaks, and imagining the possibilities that lay ahead. The idea that this moment on the cusp of completion, accomplishment, and freedom was literally stolen from them, rocked me to my core.

But in spite of my visceral attachment to the story, I initially kept quiet about it. When such obvious examples of failure and tragedy are exposed in Africa, I am generally reticent to share my opinion publicly for fear of contributing to or affirming a centuries' long narrative of Africa as a hopeless continent mired in war, disease, and corruption. The mainstream press has always harped on the negative when it comes to Africa, and been less enthusiastic and thorough in its coverage of the good stories. To that end, I've been more prone to highlight the positive.

But when my editor at assigned me to write about the kidnapping, I had to acknowledge and point out that this kidnapping was reflective of the ongoing failure of Nigerian leadership, and regional governance as well. The only way a fringe group could steal 276 girls without being found immediately is if, pretty much, every eye was off the ball.

Security allocation in this vulnerable part of Nigeria had to have been woefully inadequate. Rescue efforts had to have been tragically slow and ineffective. And coordination of information between the school, government, and military had to have been lacking. As a case in point, more than three weeks after the girls were brazenly spirited away; Nigeria’s president was still talking about setting up a committee to find the missing girls—whose names he was unable to confirm—and waiting for confirmation about who had actually stolen the girls. There was also delayed public/international response from ECOWAS, and almost dead silence from the African Union.

As I followed the Chibok Girls’ story, each update more horrifying than the last, I kept asking myself: Who is in charge? What is wrong with African leaders?

From the gentleman exposed as making a mockery of sign language at Nelson Mandela's memorial to the violent feuding President and Vice-President of South Sudan which has led to the murder of thousands and the displacement of over a million, to the morass that is the top brass in Zimbabwe to the shocking 2007 election violence that ripped through Kenya to the judgment debt scandals in Ghana, I’ve asked myself these questions time and again.

As a Ghanaian-American, I feel a vested interest in seeking out answers—but most who aren't connected to, or interested in, the continent’s success one way or another do not.

Through research, I’ve learned that many of the current conflicts on the continent are connected to, or were exacerbated by, colonialism. In Nigeria, for example, the North and South were brought together under British colonial rule, despite the fact that the two regions were made up of very different ethnic and religious groups. Likewise, Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan had always been a cobbled together confederation of peoples who had very different ways of living, and had in fact been warring. If not for colonial interest in consolidating the area of these disparate groups to control the area's natural resources, they should never have been one country.

When it comes to corruption, foreign interests have certainly played a part, but the insidious and rampant nature of corruption in many parts of the continent, at the expense of the majority poor, is homegrown. Yes, international governments have employed neocolonialist tactics to ensnare our emerging economies in disadvantageous deals and ambitious projects that don’t benefit Africans as much as they could or should (see John Perkins' book Confessions of an Economic Hitman which details how America in particular targeted emerging economies in Latin America). Yes, foreign trading partners have contributed to “illicit financial flows” as the 2014 Africa Progress Report puts it. But inept, shortsighted, and brazenly corrupt leaders have made it nearly impossible for African economies to recover from the blight of colonialism and thrive.

I believe the Chibok Girls’ outrageous abduction has served as a tipping point for many Africans in the Diaspora in terms of public narrative about the very real problems in Africa and African leadership. There are countless private listservs and forums which serve as host to virulent debate about what’s happening back home, but when such conversation leaves the confines of fellow African nationals there is often embarrassed silence or defensiveness. Chibok has emboldened many Africans living Abroad to put that embarrassment aside and raise our voices in collaboration with Africans at home to put pressure on ineffectual governance.

Some have criticized the movement among Nigerians, Diasporans, and foreigners to press for US and UN assistance in rescuing the enslaved Chibok girls, calling it a dangerous perpetuation of historic occupation of Africa by Western powers. But I see the #BringBackOurGirls campaign as the beginning of a new paradigm in which We the African People take charge of the narrative about Africa, even as we work together to change it.

A Nigerian man first tweeted the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag which instantly became the global rallying cry to bring attention to the kidnapping and rescue efforts. Nigerian parents marshaled their meager resources to scour the Sambisa Forest for their daughters because they did not trust the Nigerian military's recovery powers. These parents also exposed the Nigerian military's/government's initial boldfaced lie that they had rescued all but eight girls. Nigerian women stormed the capital of Nigeria in protest. The Christian Association of Nigeria released the names of the missing girls to assist in identification of the missing. Africans in the diaspora organized rallies around the world and pressured the foreign governments we pay taxes to, to act with urgency about this kidnapping.

For my part, these stolen girls—and the boys, and women and men who have been slaughtered, defiled, and demoralized by the Boko Haram in Nigeria in the name of Allah; and failed by their government—have changed the way I will write about the land of my parents' birth. I will be as vigilant about publicly calling out the egregious and the shameful as I am about highlighting that which swells my chest with pride. Because merely accentuating the positive will not eliminate the negative. A balanced narrative has the best chance of doing both.