What does it mean when faceless violence turns into a party game but intense personal tragedy is a subject to be avoided? What does it do to a society to rely on such coping mechanisms?
‘No, please, don’t show me that!’ She dramatically puts her hands before her eyes, shielding herself from the image on the phone. The bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label on the table is almost empty and the man in kaftan sitting next to her has changed from cheerful to melancholic. When he started talking, barely audible over the R&B blaring on the widescreen TV on the wall, the tall friend opposite from him started shifting uneasily on his chair. While the kaftan’s story evolves, other drinking buddies gesticulate in his direction to calm down and please embark on another subject.
The story he shares on this Wednesday night in an Abuja bar is a sad one, and sadly common. He and his wife had lost four children already, and tonight he recounts how their last baby was taken from them. A tragedy involving the usual factors of insufficiently trained medical personnel, badly equipped and understaffed hospitals, and non-existent emergency aid. A tale of a child that would not have died, had she been born in another country like, say, The Netherlands. It was a story sad enough to give anyone a lump in one’s throat.
While his mates are trying to make him change the subject (‘You are just upsetting yourself’), he continues his story till the very end. That is when he takes out his Blackberry to show the picture. The dreaded image the lady next to him does not wish to see, is that of the little face of the newly born. The sweet round baby face looks normal, apart from its yellow shine. What makes it sad is the knowledge that the photograph has been taken mere hours before the baby died.
Earlier that night, same crowd, another venue. One of these parks that have been turned to the beer gardens the Nigerian capital is known for, with lush greens all over and an almost Mediterranean atmosphere. Subject: Boko Haram.
Coming from Lagos, I’d all but forgotten about the group. A Lagosian said to me, and I have heard this often, “These are Northerners. Don’t mind them.” And then, they go off, on with the hustle for their daily bread.
Not in Abuja. In some form or other, BH will pop up in the conversation, and it does so this Wednesday night in the beer garden. No one objects or tries to change the subject, and the lady who would be so reluctant to see the baby picture later on, now does not look away when a Blackberry is brought out. We all watch the video playing on the little screen. It is footage from a CCTV camera on the parking lot of the Police Headquarters in Abuja that captures the suicide car bomber driving in and the subsequent explosion.
Nothing special at first: cars heading in and out of a car park. Just the knowledge that one of them is going to blow up, seems to make it exciting. And then: BOOM! Just as two cars are slowly passing, one of them explodes.
Everyone at the table watches the shaky video repeatedly and it even becomes sort of a game: we are all trying to guess which of the two sedans in the clip actually contained the bomb.
It is after midnight when I arrive at my guesthouse – I am only in Abuja for a couple of days for some paperwork. As I take off my clothes that smell of cigarette smoke, I wonder what to make of what I had just heard and seen. What does it mean when faceless violence turns into a party game but intense personal tragedy is a subject to be avoided? What does it do to a society to rely on such coping mechanisms?
I am still awake when the sun comes up (and this I mean metaphorically because it bloody rained just about every second I was in Abuja last week). The beginning of an answer to those questions is unsettling enough to lose sleep over.
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