So recently, I’ve been in
interested in animals. There is a reason that most of our folktales tell
lessons — stories about animals. Deep in the heart of all our favorite and even
hated animals, is a reflection of the heart and the soul of man. Our ancestors
were not stupid when they told children about the tortoise and the lion. And I
have no intention of breaking from this tradition. The only difference will be
that my story is strictly about animals and has no connection to real life.
There was a farm. A huge,
animal farm whose cattle had produced the best milk and meat in the area.
Export quality. The farm was run by a wolf, whose fur was famously white – earning
him the name White. White had acquired the farm after its reckless previous
owner, Goodhead, was thrown out by the animals on the farm on account of cows
going missing at an alarming rate.
The farm had three groups
of animals. The first group still supported the old, reckless Goodhead, turning
a blind eye to the loss of cattle and claiming that, in spite of the farm’s
depleted resources and cattle, Goodhead was the best farm manager they had ever
known. This group of animals, mostly goats and sheep, viewed every action by
White as an affront on their beloved Goodhead.
The second group of animals
were mostly animals that supported the takeover by White. This group was made
up of all sorts of animals — including hawks, vultures, and wild pigs who had
previously enjoyed generous servings of stolen cow meat under the provision of
Goodhead, as well as animals who pretended to support Goodhead’s farm management,
but only took stolen cows, sold them, and donated the proceeds to help White
purchase the farm. Of course, there was the minority group of vegetarian
animals, White supporters, who had never liked or supported Goodhead or anyone
who ate meat for that matter.
The third and final group
of animals were nicknamed the Swiss Guard on account of their refusal to
support either Goodhead or White – neutral like the Swiss. Several months into
White’s farm management, and even after White had promised to bring sanity to
the farm, animals still trekked long distances to get drinking water. The first
pro-Goodhead group of animals mocked White, asking him if this was the
definition of bringing sanity to the farm, reminding him, also, that even in
the final days of Goodhead, they never got such blisters walking long distances
to get water. White supporters, on the other hand, while walking and treating
blisters on their way to look for water, called supporters of Goodhead
disgruntled animals, and at some point, refused to talk about it altogether,
pretending that they were on a leisure stroll, and not desperately thirsty.
Once the Swiss Guard spoke of water scarcity, however, White supporters
harassed them, calling them ungrateful and accusing them of being closet
supporters of Goodhead. And even when members of the Swiss Guard would point at
their blisters and ask if they really enjoyed this torturous search for
drinking water, they would shrug their shoulders and just continue walking. One
prominent White supporter said, “You’re either for White or against White!”
And all the while, White
walked the farm, hands behind his back, observing, saying nothing, sometimes
walking out, going from farm to farm to take a look.
White was silent when
animals accused some farm hands that he had selected, of possessing meat stolen
when Goodhead was farm manager. White was silent as the animals went in search
of drinking water. Even when the horses were selecting their spokesperson, and
there were candidates from each of the three groups of animals, and people
accused the candidate loyal to White of having so much stolen meat that he
could pass for a Goodhead supporter, White was quiet. And because most horses
didn’t want to fall out of favor with White, they chose the horse most loyal to
him and ignored how fat and oily the horse had become from being around so much
stolen, fried meat. Even other farm owners, who had such great hopes for the
farm after White had taken over, began to wonder what plans White had to
sanitize his farm.
And all the while, White
was silent. And the Swiss Guard expressed much worry that the farm was not much
different from the way it had been under Goodhead. They had no intention of
joining issues with White’s fierce and blind supporters. Not that they longed
for Goodhead either: They were clear about the fact that Goodhead had to go.
But they were tired of not having enough wood for the fireplaces in the farm.
They were tired of being cold. They were tired of walking long distances and
getting blisters in search of water. They were tired.
And all the while, White
walked through the farm, hands behind his back, silent.
There is never a shortage of tragedies. The race to
annihilation, anarchy and terror draws contestants from countless groups from
around the world; from the less acknowledged white terrorists – who hate
everything from foreigners to Mondays – to jihadist terrorists who have, exploiting
the mess the world powers have created in the middle east, carved out a state
for themselves where they get to make fantasies come true. Consequently, there
are daily reports of mass shootings in schools and communities, suicide blasts
and insurgent attacks. There has never been a greater need for empathy.
However, empathy is a thing that one needs to be very careful about.
Often you will hear – closely following a tragedy in a foreign
country – people chastising those who cry too loudly about the bereavement of a
foreign people. So, for example, there will be people right after say, the
Paris shootings, who will be so moved by sadness and shock in this otherwise
peaceful capital of the Western world that they will put up the French flag on
their very Nigerian profiles. Then there are people who will notice this
shamefulness and write whole articles denouncing them and telling them how
horrible they are for daring to share a very French pain. These later group of
people are the subject of this article. Let us call them the empathy militia.
I will open by being unequivocal about the fact that we need the
empathy militia. We need them to scour the internet from those in breach of the
empathy code, especially when they are Africans. And the empathy code is very
simple. Let me summarize it:
1. To qualify
for any sort of non-African public empathy, an African must first promptly show
extreme public grief in writing as soon as an African tragedy occurs,
especially taking care not to let foreigners and non-Africans show empathy
first. This includes but is not limited to using hashtags on Twitter (eg.
#NeverAgain #PrayforYola #BornoLivesMatter #IStandWithKano #HowCan), changing
your profile picture to the flag of the country involved, or doing a long
series of numbered tweets to show more nuanced empathy. You can never go wrong
with numbered tweets.
2. An African
who has previously not shed tears and blood and other bodily fluids in mourning
when an African tragedy occurs shall not shed tears when a non-African faces a
tragedy, no matter how extreme that tragedy may be.
3. An African
who has shown local empathy as and when due shall be entitled to denounce other
Africans who show foreign empathy too loudly, accusing them of not doing the
same for local tragedies. This doesn’t have to be accurate. You have the right
to accuse and you should use it.
4. An African
who has the right level of local empathy is also allowed to denounce foreigners
who speak of their own tragedies, reminding them that every week, you also face
similar, if not worse tragedies.
At the heart of all of this is the principle: s/he who does not
wail for my brothers and I does not deserve to wail at all. Prepare to attack
with tweets like: “Did you put up the
Nigerian flag when scores of boys where slaughtered in Borno? Why put up the
French flag?” It will not matter that in Maiduguri, the frequency of attacks in
the ongoing war makes it practically impossible to be shocked every single time
there is an attack. That is not your business. The faithful member of the
empathy militia doesn’t care about complicated arguments, like why an ongoing,
protracted and bloody war is different from an unexpected attack in an
otherwise peaceful city. Complicated arguments are for traitors.
We need the empathy militia to regulate mourning. If you allow
Africans they will show unnecessary humanity. And being concerned about humans
who share physical and genetic characteristics is far more superior than
showing empathy to everyone who faces tragedy. Who needs humanism when you have
patriotism and nationalism. Humans should not spread themselves thin by being
capable of feeling empathy for everyone. One must suspend empathy until one has
ascertained the victim in a tragedy. This works in many scenarios. For example,
if you have reserved empathy for say the abducted Chibok girls in Borno, you
are not allowed to be too excited and create hashtags for rescued girls who
turn out not to be from Chibok. You are only allowed to be briefly happy and
resume hoping for the real subject of your empathy to be free. Just one tweet. Strategic
empathy is what I call it. Life is too short to empathize equally.
My point is, we must all encourage the empathy militia. Retweet
their tweets when they denounce those who show unnecessary empathy. Tell them
they are right. Be disappointed with them at those who are at once capable of
mourning for Paris and for Palestine, for Raqqa and for Maiduguri, for American
school kids shot by someone who hates Mondays and for dead school boys in
Borno, for Chibok girls as well as the thousands of other kidnapped women and
boys. No one should empathise that widely. Because a moment of empathy, is a
terrible thing to waste.
Mansir was 16 when he first got seriously in trouble for
wearing a dress. Mansir was 16 when he first sat behind an army truck and
posed, against his will for a picture that would go viral in Nigeria and
beyond, in spaces he did not inhabit, spaces he probably would never inhabit.
Mansir was 16 when he first became a terrorist disguised as, in the words of
the Nigerian army, a she-man.
In my head I have conversations with him, in a virtual space
far from his home in Mando, Kaduna where he has his home, his family, and his
dresses. I ask him why, in my head, not because I want to know why but because
I know this is the question people asked when they were told that he was no
terrorist, that he planted no bomb, that what he had was no disguise when he
went out to see what was happening in the chaos that followed the blast in
Kaduna. I know it is a stupid question, just like I know it is stupid when
people ask me why I like a certain color or why sometimes, I like to paint my
nails. When people ask, I just say, life is too short not to paint your nails
at least once.
Zubeida however, has ideas, even though she may not be sure.
She has ideas about spirits, bad spirits inhabiting her son’s body, whispering
terrible gender non-conformist ideas – veils and dresses and eyeliner. She has
tried to heal him, rid his body of spirits. Spirits who could not protect him
when he was stripped almost completely naked and beaten and wounded and paraded
before the world as the face of the most hated group in Nigeria – a group that
delights in taking lives and planting fear in the hearts of people. Spirits who
could not whisper into the ears of the soldiers that took him away to their
barracks and tell them that Mansir was just a boy, curious and afraid. Spirits
that could not stop the army from tweeting his photo to a mob baying for blood.
Spirits who could not make the army apologize when, after months of
interrogation, they let him out through the back door.
I do not even know if Mansir has any ideas of his own, just
like I do not know if he knew what was happening to him as they tore his
clothes and slashed his back and dragged him away. I would show him his photo
in that tweet from the Nigerian army and tease him about not knowing how to
apply the eye pencil on his brows, but he might not find it funny. I would not
find it funny.
Mansir is 17 now. Mansir is back home now, with his mother. He
dropped out of school after the school fees were hiked and Zubeida could no
longer afford it. Not many people read that he was released. People read the
scandal but hardly ever read the resolution of that scandal because there are
always new exciting scandals to read about. And reading that a scandal is not
true is not so sexy.
I read someone call Mansir a homosexual in a newspaper article.
This is not one of the questions that I would ask him, because like the
question of why he likes wearing dresses, I think it is stupid to be concerned
about his sexuality. Our rigid gender roles and rules make people unable to
understand how a male who likes women could also like wearing dresses. From the
moment we are born we are told that boys should wear blue and want to be
doctors and engineers and strong and masculine. We are told that boys don’t
cry. That boys who cry act like girls. That boys don’t play with toys or speak
a certain way. We are told that men who don’t conform must be homosexuals and
that homosexuals are bad, bad people. Perhaps Mansir likes dresses as well as
girls. I do not know. I do not care.
But if I could I would want to hear his own questions. I
imagine he would want to know why the people who claim to fight for human
rights said nothing about his plight. I imagine he would wonder: is it because I like wearing dresses? Does
wearing dresses make me less human? And if he does ask, I am not sure I can
answer. I will not be able to explain why people showed no empathy even when it
was established that he was not the bomber; why some people tweeted that if he
was not being silly and wearing dresses, he would not have been mistaken for
the bomber in the first place. I only know what I think: that Mansir deserves
an apology from the Nigerian army. I only know what I hope: that Mansir will be
able to afford to return to school soon; that Zubeida is able to afford to
change the life of her son through education. I hope that Mansir someday is
able to find a community that will not treat him like an animal for wanting to
wear a piece of clothing that humans have decided only women should wear. I
hope that his 18th birthday will be better than his 17th.