Each day, as I scroll through headlines on my phone, the news gets worse. The death tolls continue to rise in northern Nigeria and Ukraine, and along with them, the number of reports on violence and protests. Friends e-mail and text me, wondering about members of my family who live in both of these regions of the world.
Grateful for their concern, I respond as best I know how: I tell them that my family, especially my aunt and uncle living in Kiev, are safe but very concerned about my cousin who lives and works in eastern Donetsk, where pro-Russian protests are rife. Through Skype, my Ukrainian mother who now lives in Illinois checks in with my aunt in Kiev and receives updates, many of which seem to suggest that their lives aren’t totally disrupted yet. In northern Nigeria, where I was raised and spent 18 years of my life, the news from my Nigerian father’s relatives who live in Plateau State is essentially the same. They are fine, but no doubt concerned about all of the violence and instability that Boko Haram has unleashed farther north.
In Minneapolis, thousands of miles away, I experience a kind of paralysis in response to all of the news, a loss for words of my own to describe how I truly feel about these circumstances. For me, there have been no irate posts on Facebook. No shares. No hashtags. Within my paralysis, I have been capable only of reaching for what is familiar: the memories I have of Nigeria and Ukraine with which I now wrestle in order to complete a childhood memoir. I have found some solace, however illusionary or temporary, in reliving a time when I remember no such violence in Nigeria or Ukraine — when, for instance, as an 11-year-old girl I walked to NVRI School in Vom, Nigeria, without fear of bombs or abductions, or when as a child I ate ice cream not too far from Kiev’s Independence Square and marveled at the beauty of the architecture around me. Sadly, those days are long gone and along with them a deeper sense, however naive, that everything is indeed right with the world.
But let’s face it: All has not been right for a while now. And my childhood memories, which span the late 1970s and into the ’80s — a period during which both Nigeria and Ukraine were mainly under the stronghold of a nondemocratic rule (military for the former and communist for the latter) — confirm this further. Even then, with my limited knowledge of history, as I edged out of childhood in the late ’80s, I sensed a critical deterioration of governance, especially in Nigeria. More corruption. More days and nights without electricity. More universities on strike for longer periods of time. More potholes. And the list goes on.
It seemed, even back then, that the Nigerian government, lacking a sense of accountability, had abandoned many of its people to fend for themselves. In Ukraine, the winter protests revealed a people deeply unhappy with their own leaders, as well.
It is not my intention to conflate the problems of these two countries, since they have different roots and manifestations. But in my current state, as news floods in and I reach for understanding, I recall a summer during which my family was returning from a visit to Ukraine. We had landed at the airport in Lagos and were waiting for our luggage when I noticed people walking away with suitcases that obviously weren’t theirs. And no one seemed to care or be bothered that this was going on. I was enraged by this blatant theft. I wanted to right the wrong but didn’t know how, short of begging the people to stop and thereby risk abuse.
There is a larger lesson I have learned for all this. If those who are there to enforce law and order and to make a positive difference in the lives of the citizens of their own country aren’t inclined to do so or don’t act with a deeper sense of responsibility, then what is left in their place? The answer to this question is in the daily news.
Angela Ajayi is a contributing writer and editor for the online journal Wild River Review and its publishing venture, Wild River Books. She lives in Minneapolis.