Hafsat Abiola Reflects on Working Toward Peace
country, Nigeria, is home to 120 million people-one fifth
of continental Africa's population-who come from more than
two hundred ethnic groups. Each group has its unique way
of being, of relating to others, and of contributing. My
group is the Yoruba. We are generally found in western Nigeria
and are famous for our arts, clothing, and music. I love
being Yoruba, Nigerian, and African because I come from
a rich heritage and yet, because so much needs doing in
my home, I know I will be kept busy.
Of all the things that serve my growth, I love best the
stories and myths told to me by my parents and the Nigerian
people I meet. My thoughts on peace begin with a story my
dad told when he was campaigning in Nigeria's 1993 presidential
Sometimes a village is beset with problems-disease, famine,
conflict, and floods. All these problems come at once and
despite all the best efforts of members of the community,
the problems are immune to solutions. In such a situation,
the village believes they may have done something to upset
the gods, so they will gather all their best possessions
together to offer as gifts to the gods. They then ask one
of their best sons to present the gifts on their behalf.
When the gods are presented with the gifts, they may become
pacified and allow peace and prosperity to reign in the
land. But sometimes, they are so angry they will take the
best son, as well as the gifts, after which they are pacified
and allow peace and prosperity to reign. From this story,
I took the lesson that peace comes from contributing the
best we have, and, often, all that we are, toward creating
a world that supports everyone.
In much of precolonial Nigeria, and indeed Africa, ethnic
nations organized people within communities into peer groups
and trained them, from babyhood to old age, to serve their
communities. When successful, this system provided all members
of a community not only with a sense of belonging but also
with a vehicle for helping to shape the community's direction
and pace of change. In this system, people knew they were
entitled to help resolve any issue that affected the community.
This sense of entitlement grows out of a series of rituals
that begin the day a child is born. When a baby is born,
after the first few seconds, it lets out a yelp, which announces
its arrival, and which is met by expressions of joy. Among
the Yoruba, the arrival is acknowledged with a naming ceremony
where parents give names that express rich meaning and hopes
for the baby. When I arrived, my parents named me Hafsat
Olaronke, which means the treasured one and honor is being
cared for. For my parents, they saw in me one who would
be cherished and who would bring honor to her community.
Many in other parts of the world are impressed when they
discover my name's meanings, but the truth is that most
African names have beautiful meanings.
Mark Nepo, an American poet, narrates the story of the
Khoisan, a nomadic people found in southern Africa. According
to Nepo, when a Khoisan returns from a journey and meets
another from his community, he raises his hand and says,
"I am here," and the other replies, "I see
you." These practices are more than simple greetings;
they affirm our belonging to the community and our right
Nigeria is a place beset with problems, and all its members
are needed if we are to meet the challenges we face. Unfortunately,
until very recently, my country was controlled by a series
of military governments who denied most Nigerians the right
to make their contributions. Even in the period since the
military relinquished power to a democratically elected
government, many exclusionary attitudes-from class to ethnic
and religious divisions-as well as a general lack of trust
or sense of community, have effectively denied most people
the freedom to engage with their country's challenges.
And yet, despite the obstacles, both individuals and groups
are constantly announcing their presence, or asking the
questions, Do I belong? Can I contribute? Am I accepted?
Their queries are rarely met by affirmative or empowering
replies. Instead they hear jeers, or expressions of disinterest,
or obnoxious interrogations: "Who asks? What community?
What have you ever done anyway?" Nothing about this
process is enlightening, just humiliating.
This is because, unlike the small community, where every
person lives in the illusion of having the same ideals,
beliefs, and values as everyone else, in the larger context
of plural communities-be it in country, continent, or globe-we
live in the illusion of absolute difference. So, fearing
the possibility that the interaction will change us, we
magnify the threat involved in engaging with that which
differs from us. Change is stressful, and costly, because
it requires learning to navigate the unfamiliar. In the
end, you cannot work with anyone who is different, and problems
that could be resolved if we allowed everyone to contribute
the best of themselves begin to look intractable.
The Persian poet Jalaludin Rumi wrote: "Out beyond
ideas of right and wrong doing there is a field. I will
meet you there." If there is to be space for us to
speak into, we need to learn also to listen. We are the
creators of this space. We must each take responsibility
for examining our values, ideals, and beliefs and for learning
to understand those held by others, enough so that we can
help them and ourselves consider new possibilities.
In the end of my dad's story, he said that poverty, violent
conflict, malnutrition, and disease were all increasing
across Nigeria. And he asked to be able to bear our country's
gifts, in order to secure for us peace and prosperity. He
won the election but served out his term in solitary confinement,
incarcerated by the military, and died on the eve of his
release in 1998. But here was the difference he made: across
ethnic, religious, and class divides, the people said yes!
This search for validation is universal. It is beautiful
when these inquiries meet with affirmation, because it allows
a person to stride forward with all he has to give. There
is a story told by the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic
Orchestra, Ben Zander: a maestro conductor, after having
conducted a brilliant symphony, races out of the concert
hall and into a waiting car, imperiously commanding the
driver, "Drive!" When the driver asks, "Where
to?" the conductor boldly responds, "Anywhere!
The world needs me!"
Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that
we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that
supports everyone. But it is also securing the space for
others to contribute the best that they have and all that
they are. In case you are still wondering-no, it was not
a wrong turn that brought you here. You do belong here and
there is a contribution uniquely yours that is needed. Welcome
and good luck.
Resources for Teachers and Students