In retrospect, I think you would agree with me that this year started innocently enough. We all screamed “Happy New Year” at the stroke of midnight, celebrated with our loved ones and laid out all our plans and personal goals for the year. By the end of January though, we had already survived a World War III scare and the Spring Tornadoes. The Australian bushfires were raging away and we had no clue that the list would go on to include the COVID-19 pandemic, the Puerto Rico earthquakes, the Michigan dam breaches, the Yemen, Venezuelean and Southern Border Humanitarian Crises, the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, the Monsoon and Sudan Floods, the US Civil Unrest and global protests against police brutality against Blacks, and the Beirut Explosion to mention but a few.
The year 2020 in its infamy, can be compared to a lot of gut-wrenching events throughout human history. If you are Christian, perhaps you have compared it to the end of times as discussed in the Bible. If you are more historically inclined, you may have compared it to the pandemic of 1918 or the Bubonic plague. Whatever yardstick you choose here, we can at least all agree that this year will go down in the annals of human history as an incredibly difficult year, if not a downright disastrous one.
At the beginning of this pandemic, the general feeling was marked by an intense desire to protect ourselves and our loved ones while alienating everyone else. Like most people, I too followed the Tissue Rush of 2020 with a feeling of fear tinged with amusement. When the coronavirus finally hit Africa, I stocked up on what I could and cut off all social gatherings completely. I began to take loads of natural immune-boosting herbs and tried to get my loved ones to stay healthy. The ban on interstate travel made it impossible to visit my parents and I know I’m not alone in this. I do my best to keep up communications with them through video calls but frankly, I spend most of the time telling them how to focus the camera on their faces.
Now, even though a vaccine has not been discovered, countries across the globe have begun to open up again. Life is gradually returning to normal; and it is a hard transition for us all because there really is no ‘normal’ anymore. Families have lost people, businesses and entire economies have shattered and the question on the everyone’s lips is– how do we rebuild? How do we pick up the pieces of our lives and make something joyful out of it?
I had this discussion with my father recently; we swapped stories on how most of our plans for the year has been destroyed. We agreed that there were families and countries that have been more seriously affected than Nigeria and he shared his worry at the fact that there still isn’t a cure for the virus. Eventually, I posed the question ‘how do we rebuild?’ to him and his answer when it came, was ‘as a community’. This answer seems trite enough; but as soon as it was said, we both knew that it was not from any textbook or evolutionary study. It was from his lived experience and from a time that in some ways, compares to the ones we now live in.
My father grew up in Nigeria in the aftermath of the Biafran civil war; a war that remains the deadliest and most destructive war in Nigerian history. This war displaced millions of Igbos and claimed up to three million lives, most of which were children who died of starvation. Young boys were forcibly taken from their families and conscripted to fight, never to return. My father lost his brother this way and owes his life to his mother who went to extreme lengths to hide him from the conscriptors. Inflation and the costs of basic goods for the Biafran citizens soared higher each day and eventually, hundreds of civilians had to gather for hours to wait for the smallest food rations at the local distribution points.
My father and the little kids who survived were out of school for a little more than three years. Buried landmines were still exploding on civilian farmlands years after and people who went back to their houses after the war either found their homes decimated or their houses forcibly taken over by the government. After the war, the odds of rebuilding were heavily stacked against the Igbos. All the savings they had in the banks were taken away and each man received £20 in lieu of whatever money they had in the account, even if it was in the millions.
How the Igbos managed to rebuild after such a time has been the subject of intense study and conversation but according to my father, what they did was simply to look out for each other. They understood that to survive, they had to look beyond the individual or family needs and reconstruct as a community. Families, even though they had little to go by, were willing to open up their homes to those in worse conditions and when his mother could no longer feed him, my father went on to live with distant relatives who could. Acts like this were not regarded as extraordinary, they were understood as necessary and done with the knowledge that they would be reciprocated without any hesitation should the need arise.
Perhaps the magnitude of losing family homes alongside millions of people is not quite the same as the tragedy that has befallen most parts of the world during this period. Still, grief is grief and loss is loss. If a sense of community could help the post-war Biafrans recover then imagine the wonders that it could do for a lot of communities across the globe in today’s trying times. Of course this will not be easy, it wasn’t for my dad and his peers but they showed up for each other anyway. And so they survived.
We live in a society where we assume it is better to leave people alone to fight their fights. We sometimes are too guarded and try hard not to “pry into people’s lives” but guess what? This is 2020 and a pandemic has laid bare everyone’s business. So reach out whenever possible. You can start by offering help, no matter how small. It could be as big as offering huge sums of money, or as little as having tea with a neighbor and listening to them talk. You could offer to babysit while the parents get back on their feet, or you could talk honestly to a colleague about your own struggles. Once this ice is broken, what you discover is that a wave of cooperation will sweep through your immediate community and slowly usher in healing.
There would be the temptation to rebuild unconscionably; to try to grab as much as possible because of the fear of the unknown. I understand this feeling and I believe it is justified. It is, however, more important that we remember other important lessons that this pandemic has taught us, one of which is that at the end of the day we are only as strong as our weakest link.
So as we rebuild, it is important that we build with our community and for our community. And if we ever have to face another challenge as crippling as this, we will be safe in the knowledge that we have all rebuilt together once. And so we can do it all again.
When schools reopen and you are pulled to despair about the educational time your kids have lost, remember my father. Along with his peers, he missed all forms of formal education but he still went on to become one of the most respected judges in my part of the world. The Biafrans, despite their losses, still went ahead to recover and rebuild so much that the Igbos of Southeastern Nigeria today boast of a literacy rate of 94.5 and 95.4% for male and female young adults alike. Remember my father and when you do, be comforted by the resilience of human communities.
We are strong and we will recover. This too shall pass.
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Cover image by Joystick Interactive submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives to help stop the spread of COVID-19.