Okey Ndibe: “Certain kinds of tragedy take the breath away. They stun us into silence, into shocked speechlessness.”
Some Americans are fond of saying that two things are guaranteed in life: death and taxes. One is dubious about the inclusion of taxes in the equation. If you’re wealthy enough, or can afford an attorney who’s clever enough, you have a shot at avoiding taxes – or, at any rate, getting away with paying next to nothing. It’s a different matter with death. In the end, we’re all bound to die.
Yet, there are moments when death shows up in such rude, shocking garbs that we are forced to pay particular attention – even as, ultimately, we’re unable to stitch together any coherent speech.
Such a moment came last week, on December 14, to be exact. It was one of three wedding anniversaries for Sheri and me, for we had wed thrice: before a Justice of the Peace, in church, and at a traditional ceremony where we put relatives and the ancestors on notice. In my accustomed fashion, I had absolutely forgotten that it was our anniversary. It was already late afternoon when Sheri reminded me, in her ever gracious, patient and quiet manner.
By then, it did not matter. For she and I had heard accounts of one of the vilest events in our life. A young man armed to the hilt had entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, forty minutes from our home, and executed twenty kindergarteners and several adults. My first instinct was to protest that this callous killer had chosen our anniversary to enact his infamy. But I held my tongue, realizing in time that there can be no date when such an evil, spine-jangling bloodlust would be less shocking.
It went without saying that I had to write about the Newtown Horror. Still, I had the intimation that I didn’t know what to say. Certain forms and scales of horror are simply unspeakable. Where does one find the words; how discover a handle on which to hang thoughts? What does one say about a young man, himself a kid in some ways, pointing a gun at his mother and pulling the trigger to deadly effect – and then proceeding to an elementary school to take deadly aim at one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty innocent, harmless children?
As a parent myself, I wished I could say that I understood the pure, heart-bursting pain felt by parents, grandparents or guardians who dropped off their vibrant, energetic kids at school with kisses only to be summoned an hour or two later to brace for the harvest of corpses. But I own that it’s impossible to approach the sorrow and grief of, say, a parent who’s lost a child in such senseless, unfathomable circumstances.
I wanted to imaginatively enter the skin of the victims, to conjecture their emotions as the assailant turned his bloodthirsty ire on each confused target. I recoiled, for my powers of imagination were no match for the task.
There was something impenetrable about the whole thing. I was face to face with evil, no question; but it was evil masked, and I had no mechanism for penetrating that mask.
It was not the first time I had felt an urge to write about something so fundamentally disturbing, but lacked a vocabulary to describe the experience or to broach its emotional gravity. There was a time I watched a TV documentary on the travails of women raped by soldiers in the Congo. One woman, so thin she could have been all bones, her gaunt face sad, told the interviewer about being gang-raped by several soldiers. Then, ashen eyes fixed on the camera – and on whoever was watching – she asked, “What crime did my vagina commit against them? Was it not a vagina that gave birth to them?” Her words carried the weight of Olympian pain. They touched a region of grief that I was too scared to enter. Devastated, I cried for hours, embarrassed on behalf of those who’d brought her to the edge of hell.
Then there was the Rwandan genocide. I once read a magazine story about the country’s former Minister for Women Affairs who encouraged the mass rape of Tutsi women. One victim related how she and other Tutsi women were herded into a stadium filled with Hutu men. Then the then Women’s Affairs minister gave a charge to the ravenous, hate-filled Hutu men. “I don’t want any of you to tell me tomorrow that you don’t know how Tutsi women taste.” The men fell to in a repellent, rapacious orgy. Afterwards, the ravaged women were lined up and hacked to death, a select few of them spared – in the final evil gesture – “in order to remember.”
Having experienced such horror, how does a woman cope with bearing the burden of memory? It strikes me as one of those untenable occasions when the living begrudge the dead: when, in fact, so-called survivors wish they had the relative joy of the grave.
As a child myself, I lived through the horrors of the Biafran War, that tragic chapter in Nigeria’s history that claimed anything between two and three million lives. My parents did their best to shield me and my siblings from the more stark horrors of that war. Even so, their love and concern could not protect me from the pangs of hunger that was the lot of most Biafrans, children and adults alike. They could do nothing to stop the sudden eruptions of air raids, the incessant strafing by low-flying Nigerian jets whose engines shook the very earth and sent everybody scurrying for the shelter of makeshift bunkers. There were ubiquitous images of children plagued by kwashiorkor, bellies bloated with air, eyes sunken, skins sallow and sickly, bottoms flattened and bony.
Certain kinds of tragedy take the breath away. They stun us into silence, into shocked speechlessness. They make our voices to shake and tremble. Yet, it is in learning to speak about the unspeakable, in stuttering back to some form of speech and groping our way back to the salve of memory that we rescue ourselves from abject despair.
Yes, the carnage of Newtown, Connecticut is as difficult to write about, as impossible to grasp as the daily carnage in Nigeria and other postcolonial addresses where the poor, the elderly, the weak are daily savaged, dehumanized, destroyed. Yet, we must strive to hold on to memory. It is memory – the stubborn remembrance of the things that happened, happy as well as sad, glorious as well as horrific – that helps us to resurrect or reclaim the dead, to illuminate our paths, and to enable us to move forward and move on.
I may not be able to write/speak about last week’s carnage in Newtown, any more than I am able to write/speak about the callous bombings that maim and kill innocents in Nigeria or the Congo. Still, I must seek to remember. For it is in our personal and collective remembering that all the world’s slain innocents achieve the magic of staying alive.
May their souls rest in peace.
Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe
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