A Bring Back Our Girls Reading List

Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received, to be one of those who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given, to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.

–          Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

(Note: see comments for an insightful critique of the tweet above)

In the evolution of mass social media campaigns, particularly those relevant to Africa, the point inevitably comes when Twitter is divided into those fervently hashtagging for justice and those criticising the shallow, callous, white privileged, neo-colonial nature of the campaign.

When it comes to the #BringBackOurGirls movement, I am squarely in the latter camp. But the discussion won’t be meaningfully forwarded by the opinions of another indignant white woman, so instead of writing myself I’ve compiled the analysis and opinions of some people who are far better-placed than me to illustrate the true dynamics at play here.

If you have additional reading suggestions, please pass them on and I’ll add them to the list.

From Africa is a Country, 4 May:

I reiterate, I am glad that the world is finally taking notice of the Chibok girls. On the other hand, I do grow nervous when overly sensationalized coverage of children in African conflicts in the West go the way of #kony2012. While the language we use to talk about these girls must do the utmost the horror of their plight, but that in our eagerness to “say something” we do not marginalize them further.

–          Karen Attiah, #BringBackOurGirls: What took the world so long?

From Foreign Affairs, 5 May:

Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized. It is targeting society’s most defenseless and fetishized. This act in essence is not dissimilar to how the Syrian government has used women as targets of punishment in that war, allegedly perpetrating rape on women and girls in front of their husbands or sending videotapes of rape to families as a means of humiliating them. Both are showing they can take what “belongs” to other men and use them as they please.

–          Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, Why women are the “spoils of war” in Nigeria and around the world — and nobody cares.

From Foreign Affairs, September 2011:

Instead of associating itself with Abuja’s heavy-handed military response, the Obama administration should urge Jonathan to address what are essentially political problems: poverty and the corruption-driven alienation felt by the population of northern Nigeria, factors that contribute to Boko Haram’s popular support. . . . Even if Boko Haram expand its operations and establish significant contacts with international terrorist organizations, the Obama administration should not let counterterrorism considerations trump these public diplomacy strategies. Too heavy a hand would risk alienating Nigeria’s 75 million Muslims, who already have legitimate grievances in the north. This, in turn, could undermine the very unity of Nigeria — something neither Washington nor Abuja can afford.

–          John Campbell, To Battle Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Put Down Your Guns

Instead, Obama has highlighted this as an opportunity “to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.” Worth remembering that the U.S. already has a drone base in Niger, established a little over a year ago.

From The Scoop, May 4:

We are experiencing what is, apart from the Biafran war, the most violent period in our nation’s existence. Like many Nigerians, I am distressed about the students murdered in their school, about the people whose bodies were spattered in Nyanya, about the girls abducted in Chibok. I am furious that politicians are politicizing what should be a collective Nigerian mourning, a shared Nigerian sadness. And I find our president’s actions and non-actions unbelievably surreal. I do not want a president who, weeks after girls are abducted from a school and days after brave Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest the abductions, merely announces a fact-finding committee to find the girls.

–          Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The President I Want

From The Atlantic, March 2012 (soon after the release of Kony 2012):

There is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.

–          Teju Cole, The White-Saviour Industrial Complex

As privileged observers, we must acknowledge that this is not about us, by which I mean the privileged whites of the West. That no matter how much pain, outrage or need to act this situation inspires in us, we are bystanders. This is about hundreds of young women somewhere in West Africa and, to return to Teju Cole:

They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.

They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.

–          Teju Cole, Captivity

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As the world spirals into ever greater chaos…

“The true lesson of history was this: that the so-called victims, the poor, the downtrodden, the masses, had always struggled with spears and arrows, with their hands and songs of courage and hope, to end their oppression and exploitation: that they would continue struggling until a human kingdom came: a world in which goodness and beauty and strength and courage would be seen not in how cunning one can be, not in how much power to oppress one possessed, but only in one’s contribution in creating a more humane world.”

– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood

On the battleground of modern life

I was in one of my favourite bookshops on Sunday – Blackwell’s Oxford. It’s a multi-storey bookshop with a breathtaking book cave, and is one of those bookshops (like the LRB Bookshop) where the arrangements and suggestions themselves are intellectually stimulating.

However, the day I visited was Remembrance Sunday (which I have written about before) and I was disappointed by the sign below:

Laurence Binyon remembrance sunday veterans day poppy siegfried sassoon wilfred owen

Now, I studied War Poetry in my final year at Trinity College, spanning many of the major figures from 1914 to 1945 and reading extensively about the background of war poetry of the period, and I have only the slightest awareness of Binyon. Strange that they chose to quote him, given that the stand featured the better-known war poets and writers: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Graves.

So why choose Binyon? For the same reason people continually choose Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling as the poets of war – their portrayals of war are at best sanitised and at worst romanticised. They represent the kind of remembrance that we crave – a rose-tinted evocation of eternal youth.

Sassoon refuses us that. He rejects any romantic commemoration of the dead of the First World War. He had the following to say about the New Menin Gate memorial:

Here was the world’s worst wound

And here with pride. ‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.

Was ever and immolation so belied?

As these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

As for Owen, he didn’t live to see any commemorations of the First World War. He was killed, needlessly and cruelly, one week before the signing of the Armistice. But during the war his poetry deliberately opposed the dishonest portrayals of eternal youth of Binyon or Brookes, portraying instead the reality of doomed youth:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 

Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle 

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

This is the reality of how we marked the passing of millions of young men in the First World War. We may choose to “remember” them with moments of silence and beautiful music and paper flowers, but they died to choirs of wailing shells, amid the sounds of agony, death and brutality. They weren’t heroes who died for their countries, they were young men who were thrown to their deaths, in service of the military industrial complex.  A painful reality, yes, but a reality we must face for as long as we continue to engage in the brutality of mass armed conflict.

In this article Harry Leslie Smith, a 90-year-old veteran of the Second World War, discusses why he has worn the poppy for the last time, because he cannot tolerate the memory of his friends being exploited to serve the morally vapid ends of the current government:

“I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.

“Next year, I won’t wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.”