Hafsat Abiola Reflects on Working Toward Peace

My 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 election:

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 to contribute.

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.



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