Monday, March 8, 2010

Can You Hear the Cries in Jos?

Day 20 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Movies have become a world unto their own as a legitimate art form. Good movies can tell a story in a compelling fashion, and good acting can be amazing to watch.

Nevertheless, I just can’t appreciate the fuss surrounding Hollywood's culture – and it’s not just movie celebrities during Oscar season. Television celebrities garner as much press and attention when it’s Emmys time. I realize entertainment represents a major part of the American economy, but I sometimes wonder if that says more bad things about America than good.

So while many Americans were absorbed in the panoply of this weekend's Academy Awards, real news continued to take place all around the globe. Consider Iraq, for example. Remember the place: the country where thousands of Americans have recently been killed so this former dictatorship can hold free elections?

And indeed, free elections were held yesterday in the newly-minted democracy. Despite attacks against voters that killed 38 people, roughly 62% of the electorate went to the polls. While results from the elections won’t be known for several more days, at least one trend looks remarkably promising for people who were hoping Iraq would adopt American political methodologies. Yesterday’s 62% turnout was down from the 75% turnout in the 2005 elections. If that means voter apathy is already setting in for Iraqis, then I guess we can chalk up a point for the Americanization of the Middle East.

However, this weekend’s most disturbing news came out of a little-known city called Jos. Have you ever heard of Jos? I hadn’t either, until a long-lost friend found me on FaceBook.

Death and Destruction in Jos

He and his wife run a school in this city of central Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. Jos has been the flashpoint for a series of violent incidents that have been festering underneath the American media’s radar for months now.

This past weekend, more than 200 people were killed in attacks by Muslims against Christians in the towns of Zot and Dogo Nahauwa, just south of Jos. My friend says they were spared the violence in Jos this time. However, tensions remained so high today, schools closed at noon.

Indeed, the violence has become so commonplace there, the basic safety of my friend and his family – all white Americans – has become gravely compromised. Recently, they’ve begun plans for returning Stateside until the violence winds down.

Jos sits between the northern Muslim and southern Christian regions of Nigeria. Even the city itself is split between the two dominant religions. In the central Plateau State, of which Jos is the capital, Christians tend to be considered the more powerful of the two groups, with many Muslims classified as “settlers,” which is considered a lower rung on the Nigerian social ladder. As if the tension between Christians and Muslims wasn’t enough, the country’s 400 or so ethnic groups further complicate the situation.

Why It Matters

Indeed, the complexities of the conflicts in and around Jos baffle many Westerners who need to have a simple roster of good guys and bad guys. I’m one of those having a hard time wrapping his head around the Jos violence, not necessarily because I want to take sides, but following a crisis like this is easier when you have a clear pattern of victims and perpetrators.

Many times, the tragic episodes of violence that erupt around the globe can be culturally complex. Americans, whose lives are already complicated enough, hesitate to connect with even more stories that drain one’s energy with their dramatic dysfunction and dehumanizing violence. But sometimes I wonder if this indifference robs us of something intrinsic to our own existence.

Even if we don’t know all of the facts in these international crises, even if we don’t have all of the time it would take to understand the complexities of these incidents, and even if we’d feel that much more depressed learning about still more violence on our planet, wouldn’t it still behoove the humanity in all of us to at least stop and consider one thing: there are human beings being killed in and around Jos.

Sure, we know that intellectually. OK, slaughter in Jos – got it. Next?

But when you stop and consider – even for a moment – that lives were snuffed out this past weekend in a place you've probably never heard of, does that do anything for you, inside? Stop for a moment – even right now – and consider that a life like yours in many respects exists no more on Earth because of violence in central Nigeria. Isn’t it a humbling thing to realize? It is for me.

Don’t wade out into the murky waters of humanistic fatalism here. Just linger on the shore for a moment... and consider the loss of life that, from our lofty perch here in North America, we never heard.

Related essay: Of What Jos Photos Bespeak
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