3 Mar 2015

Nigerians And Sympathy Fatigue - by Uche Ucheomar Onwutuebe

It is with a sincere but bewildered heart that I announce to you that my love for my fellow countrymen is waxing colder by the day. I remember when the charred corpses of the 2,000 Baga victims surfaced on the net. Many of us would have mourned and made a better spectacle if it was our N2,000 that fell into the drain.

Where on earth is Baga? Is it in Nigeria? Do people exist there? Honestly, we could not be bothered.

It (just like many of us) was not always like this. I remember in 2013 when the #ChildNotBride hashtag was trending. I was genuinely moved. I pictured a young girl scarcely out of her playpen, being launched like a rocket into the realm of matrimony. I pictured a hoary man rolling over her; I understood that her chances of escaping the VVF and leaking urine like a faulty faucet for the rest of her life were very slim. I was moved, my sympathy was provoked.

So, I joined the bandwagon of other concerned citizens as we convened at social media platforms and held e-rallies, brandishing our e-placards: “She Needs A Pen Not A Penis”; “Early Marriage Robs Children Of Opportunities”, etc. I even endured the dispirited debate between Stella Damascus and Ahmed Yerima. But like all topics that trend, the end is inevitable. So, just like Coke left open for too long, that topic fizzled out.

Then, 256 girls were abducted by Boko Haram. That was when I realised that the contagion of Sympathy Fatigue had caught up with me. I was more thrilled to see Hollywood stars hold up their placards and lend their voices to our plight. My feelings were more like, “Wow, so these people know my country?” My favourite was the United States’ First Lady, Michelle Obama, and the subtle anger on her face, staring down Abubakar Shekau and his cohorts to #BringBackOurGirls.

I saw pictures of Diasporans holding rallies and events in their countries of residence, in honour of the missing Chibok girls and I surmised that perhaps, only outside the shores of this country can one truly feel sympathetic about the plight ailing it, and that most people living in Nigeria who lent their voices to this cause did so out of how fashionable the hashtag had become. I even learnt that a night club had a party themed, #BringBackOurGirls, where I imagined beer glasses were raised to toast to the missing girls.

Sometimes, when I caught myself being unsympathetic, I would reprimand myself thoroughly. It could have been my sisters, it could even have been me, sitting for the WASSCE quietly one moment and the next moment the exam hall would be stormed by masked men shepherding us into wagons to be sold in distant lands. So I would hold a minute of silence for the girls, but 30 seconds into it, I would be looking for where to charge my phone.

I am not the only one with Sympathy Fatigue. The virulence of this affliction is very high in Nigeria. Our sense of camaraderie is comatose and our milk of human kindness has calcified into stalactites of indifference. Something has eaten our conscience and here are reasons why I think we have become blasé and indifferent.

Many things have been abducted from us even before the 256 students and they include our rights to proper education; our rights to basic amenities, security, and proper health care. We have asked and asked for these things to be brought back to us, till our voices have grown from hoarse to silent. Two hundred and fifty six girls were carted off and we were demanding their captors to bring them back, but how long did anyone think their memories would linger? They are gradually being forgotten.

As for the massacre in Baga, the only people who would be genuinely moved would be those who have known the victims personally. Those to whom they would not be mere statistics. The others can only tweet and write poems for them and get on with their business.

I read people accusing the CNN of giving the incident poor coverage and how it bestowed more attention to the Charlie Hebdo victims, how it had shown the world again that white lives mattered over black lives. And I ask, if the lives of our fellow countrymen do not matter to us, is it the white man that would leave his burger and cheese and come over here to organise a wake for the victims? If our President hasn’t beaten his breast and mourned at the tomb of victims, is it Barack Obama that would wear sack cloth and pour ashes on his American head for the dead in Nigeria?

I watched the state burial of the policemen killed at the Charlie Hebdo incident. You could see the solemnity, you could feel the passion, and you did not need a Christiane Amanpour to report to you that somebody special had just died.

I do not know what would fan the dying embers of patriotism into flame in our hearts, what would make us “do” something to ease the plight of others because it appears to me that everyone in Nigeria is either running his own autonomous community where he is the king and chief dictator or he is thinking of how to whisk himself out of this place by fire or by force.

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