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The tyranny and racism of distance

The tyranny and racism of distance

In an NBC spot for a Hurricane Katrina relief and fundraising concert in 2006, Mike Meyers is reading solemnly from cue cards. Next to Meyers is Kanye, looking and sounding torn and defeated. After highlighting the disproportionate effects of Katrina on African-Americans, Kanye goes off-script. First, he says, “They’ve given them [U.S soldiers] permission to go down and shoot us”. Meyers turns his head towards Kanye as if to remind him about something, but continues from his cue. Then, Kanye drops it. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Meyers turns once again to Kanye, and the camera quickly cuts away to Chris Tucker.

Borno state is not the city of Paris. Nigeria is not France. 2,000 people is more than 17 people. A ten-year old female suicide bomber is infinitely more tragic and soul-wrenching than three armed gunman. #jesuischarlie is trending, #bringbackourgirls was trending. Both are fleeting moments of sentimentality, broader than they are deep. Scott Gilmore dryly said, “#JeSuisCharlie so please #BringBackOurGirls because #Kony2012 taught us hashtag slacktivism is very useful to resolve things like #GamerGate”. Social media has failed to close the distance between immediacy and death. The tyranny of distance reigns.

But, do we really not care about black people because of a distance that is both geographical and sociocultural? In other words, is distance racist?

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 11.50.36 am

I am Baga, which can mean “foolish”. I am slow to learn and understand. We are Baga. We are human, and our grief can only travel certain distances. It travels along paths that are familiar, guided by a sociocultural GPS. In 100 metres, turn left down Rue Nicolas Appert. Or, take an alternate route, turning right at the next intersection towards Baga, Borno.

Broken pencils and broken lives are what I am left with; a deep sense of ambiguity over where to feel. Attempting to attribute more value to one tragedy than the other seems absurd. We are forced to make such cold calculations, our GPS guiding the way. Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter, but not all lives can be located. The number of media articles and trending hashtags is not a measure of compassion or apathy. But, it is a compass of our moral tacking. We are lost.

In order to adjust our bearings and reduce the distance, I’ve listed a select number of articles regarding recent events in northeastern Nigeria. A small effort to reduce the tyranny of distance.


“The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy.” – Unmournable Bodies. New Yorker

Boko Haram’s ‘deadliest massacre’: 2,000 feared dead in Nigeria. Guardian

Terrorists Killed 2,000 People in Nigeria Last Week. So Why Doesn’t the World Care? World.Mic

Why did the world ignore Boko Haram’s Baga attacks? Guardian

I am Charlie, but I am Baga too: On Nigeria’s forgotten massacre. Daily Maverick

Boko Haram Massacre: Baga survivors narrate ordeal. Premium Times

Je Suis Nigeria. African Arguments

Gathering news of a massacre. BBC World Service Radio

Boko Haram’s massacre in Nigeria: what happened and why. Vox

Nigeria’s military says 150 killed in Boko Haram clashes in Baga. Reuters

Dispatches: What Really Happened in Baga, Nigeria? Human Rights Watch


(Map from the BBC).


‘“It’s a little girl,” said the hospital official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of his position. “The body is beyond recognition, but from the face you can see it’s a young person. A young pretty girl.”’ – In Nigeria, New Boko Haram Suicide Bomber Tactic: ‘It’s a Little Girl’. New York Times

Boko Haram Uses Girls As Suicide Bombers, Reports Say. NPR

Nigeria’s Horror in Paris’s Shadow. The Atlantic

Boko Haram and the little girl whose name we will never know. Kindle

Female suicide bombers kill 39 in Potiskum, Maiduguri markets. Vanguard

Boko Haram, Borno state and Nigeria

“Tucked away in the remote north-eastern corner of Nigeria, Borno is one of its most mismanaged states, which is saying something. Its literacy rate is two-thirds lower than in Lagos, the southern business hub. Fewer than 5% of women in parts of Borno can read or write. Income per head is 50% lower than in the south, school attendance 75% lower. In the past the state government has been a byword for corruption. Elections have been noted for their thuggishness and dishonesty.” – “Nigeria’s crisis: A threat to the entire country.” The Economist

Boko Haram: The Other Islamic State. New York Times

Boko Haram crisis: Nigerian archbishop accuses West. BBC

Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram. New York Times

‘Boko Haram’ doesn’t really mean ‘Western education is a sin’. Christian Science Monitor

Boko Haram crisis: Why it is hard to know the truth in Nigeria. BBC

Nigeria ‘needs same support as France’ after Boko Haram attacks -archbishop. Mail & Guardian Africa

Featured image is from a protest in New York City. Photo by Michael Fleshman.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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3 thoughts on “The tyranny and racism of distance

  1. […] Must Go. Which seems especially relevant in light of recent attacks in Paris and Nigeria, and the attention paid to each respectively in the Western […]

  2. Eliza Anyangwe also had a great piece in the Guardian yesterday analyzing why in Nigeria, unlike France, people have not taken to the streets – either in solidarity or protest:

  3. notyourusualeconomist

    Brendan, thanks for this. I wonder whether poverty also plays a part in this. Specifically, the 200 or 2000 or however many people died in Baga (and continue to die in Northern Nigeria) – unlike the 12 people in Paris – never had the opportunity in life to express their genius or creative skills, because they were poor. The distance is not just in minds, it is also pretty physical. Which is, of course, something France and other countries could help with by changing – not just with aid to Nigeria but also by opening their borders to allow creative genius’ from all over the world to make a difference. The sad thing is, the Paris killings are likely to make France act in a worse manner in this regard.

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