Someone asks: Why did the world ignore the Baga massacre? Why was the Nigerian government swift to respond to the Charlie Hebbo attack and hesitant about Baga? The answer, which I share plaintively, is bracketed by a word, “numbness”—the numbness that comes from a repeated and stupefying devaluing of human life. It is equally a numbness forced on many by the perceived distance between the scene of blasts and massacres and the screens where these tragedies are reported and discussed. This distance is—how else to say it?—a mirage, because we can choose not to be numb.
I think a lot about Glenna Gordon’s documentary photography on girls abducted from Chibok. These are not photographs of faces, but of objects, items left in the wake of disappearance. But perhaps what you see, most of all, is that the photographs, as metaphors for absence, have bridged a certain distance. The missing schoolgirls, who for some exist only as phantoms, have become mournful presences in their school uniforms, exercise books, footwear, earrings, toothbrushes. I realize that in today’s desperate times, as Gordon’s photographic work shows, you and I need metaphors. We need the scaffolding it provides, the many meanings contained within it, the many afflictions it can outdistance.
It is distance that allows people to say, “Oh, those numbers have been exaggerated.” People who say such a thing, who imagine such response, have become agents of obscurity. They thrive on speculations, they peddle half-truths, un-shamed by much lying—and even if they know how many people have actually died, they wish to defend the honor of their reputations.
Distance is an abominable excuse. The only things worth speaking about are those experiences language brings closer. Yes, you might feel “unworded” by the scale of terror in Nigeria. You might feel tongue-tied, exasperated beyond words. And then, as a way to keep sane, you might turn sideways, away from the carnage that terrifies you immensely. Yet, if you are a writer, your silence is the triumph of terror. Your capacity to imagine—to translate through words the untranslatable—is a great asset in the campaign against great cruelties.
A shared longing is possible; and this is why distances can be bridged. There is no one, whether in Lagos or Baga, who isn’t an expert in desiring a life a fraction less cruel.
“There is a natural alliance,” writes John Berger on Simone Weil in Photocopies, “between truth and affliction, because both of them are mute supplicants, eternally condemned to stand speechless in our presence.” I subscribe wholly to an alliance of this sort. Just as there are spokespersons for affliction, you and I can be those who speak for truth.
This truth, this trueness—your resolution to name things properly—is at the risk of diminishing in value. Your faith must be unshaken in the usefulness of words, of language and articulation, the promise of clarity. To make things clear we begin by naming the anomalies of our terror-filled country. One anomaly is the perceived distance between those at risk of death and those whose words can give worth to the dying.