Enugu in February 1970 was still covered by the dusty winds of harmattan that come every December. These harmattan winds carry the scratchy scent of the Sahara, swirling dust that coats everything brown. Everything dries up and crackles during harmattan. Tree leaves twist and snap in two, clothes bristle and are static to touch, lips crackle and bleed, and everyone carries a tube of vaseline in their pockets or bags to shine their ashy, dusty bodies for the Church Bazaars of the Christmas season.
However, the Christmas leading into 1970 was anything but shiny. The brown winds of harmattan carried dust as well as the stench of blood and rotting bodies from Nigeria’s concluding three-year civil war. Church bazaars were replaced with mass funerals. Screams of “Happy New Year” were overshadowed by the woes of families who, with shaky hands, threw dirt over empty caskets. Bits of red flesh, ripped to shreds by shrapnel, were scattered on the roads. So families could only collect tiny parts of their mauled loved ones.There was nothing to be buried.
War is not a new phenomenon in human history. We see its disastrous realities in movies; many popular games are predicated on the violence of war and death. I might go as far as claiming that the practice of war has become an event that we are desensitized to because, in many ways, consciously or unconsciously, we believe it is normal for humans to kill other humans. When I see my precious six year-old brother thumbing away on Call of Duty, shooting person after person, blood splattering everywhere, I cannot help but wonder if his mind is being conditioned to accept the death of people by others as a fact of human nature. As an international student, my perspective on war has always been shaped by the experience of my grandmother in 1967, during the height of Nigeria’s civil war with Biafra.
When Enugu was conquered in 1967 by the Hausa-led Nigerian government, my grandmother fled to Umuahia. She fled with her family, dragging goats, carrying yams and boxes on their heads with kerosene lamps in their hands. There was no electricity then. I can still see the pain in her eyes as she describes that moment of uncertainty; there was a blockade by the Nigerian government, and no food was allowed into the southwest (where Umuahia was). So Mmaa, my grandmother, watched as one of her brothers suffered and eventually died from kwashiorkor. It was the first time I really understood collective punishment as a tool of warfare.
My grandmother has nursed a hatred for Hausa people since 1970. I understand her. She tells me stories of Hausa men gruesomely killing her brother and uncles. At a young age, she taught me to fear my Hausa brethren: “be careful around them. Please Onyi, never travel to Kano, and don’t speak about the Quran or a Hausa person would find you and slit your neck.” Mmaa’s eyes are wide with fear; a reflection of her pain and loss. But also a reflection of the absence of love that has ruled her life. Like my grandmother, Nigeria is yet to heal from the civil war. Had we used an ethic of love to guide the post-war restoration efforts, to build a unified country, the pervading political ethnicism that is destroying the country would not exist.
Two months ago, I shared my ideas on love with a student, “M”. When I told “M” to “see everyone in the world with the same eyes of tenderness, understanding, patience, and love as they see their 7 year old sister,” M told me that I was being idealistic and it is “impossible” to see people that way. I understand now. Choosing to love is the hardest thing that we can do in this life because it is the only thing that will heal us. Nothing good comes easy.
When we choose to love, we look at the reality of homelessness, for example, wondering why it persists and how we can solve it. We stand against this current capitalist system and ask ourselves if it is worth all the money, all the professionalism and all the careers for people to remain in poverty. When we choose to love, we interrogate our own biases towards people that are different from us; we look outside of our lives, wondering why every one of our family members and friends are so similar. Is it an uncontrollable choice or an implicit choice that can be solved?
When we choose to love, we reject all forms of war. We read histories about the systems of domination that have allowed war to shape our world and we put ourselves in the context of people whose voices were taken away by war. When we choose to love, we center people’s experiences and feelings in our political visioning because it is human to feel things. When we choose love, sooner or later, we realize that our current systems only reinforce lovelessness in our lives. They reinforce careerism and they reinforce ownership of private capital. And we devote our lives to changing this system.
The day I met Andy, Hanna, Sara and Shantel, their love for me healed me and made me feel more alive. It was August and I had come to America for the first time. I was so scared. How would I adapt to this new country, new food, new accent, new people? Andy, Hanna, Sara and Shantel took me in and taught me that love heals everything: fear, sadness, pain, loneliness, even disease. I believe life is worth living because there is a chance we will be engulfed by love’s embrace. I have so much more testimonies to share, more than can be covered in this page. In time, I will share them.
Kingsley Aaron-Onuigbo ‘27 is a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].
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