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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Thank Heavens for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

...my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe...I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came. -Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I have a bachelor's degree in Conservation and Restoration Ecology and close to 13 years of experience as a biologist. Combined, this is roughly enough to make me the leading expert in a room full of liberal arts majors, but still kind of lost when I'm among my peers. I never call myself a scientist because I just didn't go to enough school for it. Basically I'm the guy you knew in high school who went to Jamaica for a week and came back Rastafarian. I feel the lack of a graduate degree the most keenly when I'm trying to analyze statistical data. I got an A in Statistics 3000: Statistics for Scientists, which is the only math class in which I got a score higher than a C+ in the entirety of my school career, so I know a little, but not a ton.

I'm a sucker for statistics, though, even in the face of all the ways in which they can be manipulated. I hope I have a better eye for nonsense than most, but if it proves the viewpoint I already have, I certainly give it less scrutiny than if it challenges it. I'm trying to get better, you guys, but there are an infinite number of thinkpieces online and only so much lunch break in which to devour them in between bites of low-sodium tomato soup.

Here's some data we can all get excited about: Howie's Book Club The Blog page views

The argument I make for the scientific method is that it helps us overcome the biases that evolution has hardwired into our brains. So I rely on data collected from as large a sample size as possible in order to get an idea of what is going on in the world. Guys, guess what, the world is a big place and our experience within it is so unique to us as to be functionally worthless. It's only when we combine hundreds or thousands or millions of experiences that we can see worthwhile patterns. We call individual experiences "anecdotal evidence" and I'm afraid it's not very useful.

Except when it is. A good story gives a face to statistics. That poor little baby dead on the beach was not the first child to die during the Syrian refugee crisis, for example. There are 4.6 million Syrian refugees, and it's estimated that half of them are children under the age of 8. It's estimated that just in 2015, 3,700 refugees died. If half of them were children that means that thousands of little kids have perished while their parents watched. Some in horrifying drownings, some withered away from starvation or lack of nutrition while their parents held them and screamed and pounded the earth in misery. It's hard, though, to process thousands of little babies. When we see one, and learn his father's story, and mourn with him, it makes a tragedy on the other side of our planet mean something to us personally.

After that picture started popping up in places where we couldn't avoid it, donations to charity organizations went up by 636 percent the following week. This Christmas, some friends and family joined together and gathered almost $2,000 worth of stuff (new stuff, nearly new stuff, really good stuff) to help a refugee family from Myanmar start a new life in Salt Lake City. In the face of ignorance and hatred, lots of people looked at that little boy and said if there's something I can do about this, I will do it. Even if it's little.

Pictured: Not a little

Your donations and help didn't budge that big number much, I'm afraid. The bike you bought didn't end the civil war and the laptop didn't bring anyone's baby back. That's the bad news. The good news is that you brought mobility to a teenager in a new country who is safe for the first time in her life. You gave a single mom who is raising her niece and nephews along with her own children the tools she needs to feed them and give them a genuine shot at a productive life. As a scientist you have to look at the big picture, but as a human being getting to know the individual stories is, as noted philosopher Beck once said, "where it's at."

Between 1966 and 1970, 3.1 million Igbo and other Southern Nigerian people were killed in a series of massacres and battles in the lead-up to civil war and its aftermath. In one month approximately 30,000 Igbo people were murdered, often by other civilians aided by the military. In response to what many historians now refer to as genocide, a new republic was formed in Southern Nigeria: Biafra. The resulting multi-year war would leave Igbo people cut off from resources and slowly starving as Nigeria blockaded the fledgling nation.
Americans began seeing starving African children on TV in what was probably the first of what would become a common sight: children with distended bellies due to kwashiorkor. Starving babies. Hungry African soldiers. (This is something I grew up with, maybe to the point of numbness. I remember seeing these starving children on late-night TV commercials, asking us to sponsor a child for pennies a day. I wondered if I had the pennies to help. Later, as a cynical teen I think I shrugged these off as scams, but actually they work.) You guys, it's horrible.

I'll be honest, when I read Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I had no idea. I'd never heard of Biafra. We are so safe and privileged here that the world's constant battles blur together for us. At the precise moment as I read Adichie's account of her nation's war, I was reminded that similar atrocities were happening currently in Nigeria as Boko Haram, a branch of ISIL, kidnaps and massacres other Muslims and Christians, an extension of sorts of the civil war. Over 10,000 people were killed there in 2014 alone. That's in addition to the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, Eritrea, Myanmar, and Kosovo (I'm certainly missing several more).

Half of a Yellow Sun follows a handful of people through a decade that culminates in war. Olanna and Kainene are twin daughters of a rich Nigerian businessman. Olanna takes up with radical professor Odenigbo and Kainene with a shy British writer Richard. Odenigbo's houseboy Ugwu, dirt-poor and from a tiny village, serves as the principal narrator, though the story jumps around between narrators and timeline.
Richard exhaled. It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.
It's not just about war. It's about marriage and family and loyalty. About perspective. “This is our world, although the people who drew this map decided to put their own land on top of ours," Odenigbo tells Ugwu. "There is no top or bottom, you see.” Identity: "You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?” Aunty Ifeka said. “Your life belongs to you and you alone."

I've written about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before. Twice, actually. It's actually taking a lot of self-control not to just burn through everything she's written before reading anything else. But, like a kid with a big bag of Halloween candy, I can't just eat all of my favorites first.
Anyway, one part that sticks with me involves Richard, the white Englishman, as he decides to write a book about the war, but loses his manuscript. When asked if he will still write it, he realizes it isn't his story to tell. Adichie's stories resonate because they are not an outsider's view of a tragedy. Or an interpretation of culture. These are her people's stories.

In an interview she elaborates:
CNA: Well, that’s him saying that—he’s a character. His case is different. He does write about it—in a way that helps the cause. He writes about [the war] for the Western press in a way that he realizes that they will take it more seriously. The story that Ugwu ends up writing—Richard made the right decision. I really don’t think—I suppose yes, maybe it is my subtle way of slipping in my politics that maybe it’s time that Africans wrote about Africa. For so long it’s been non-Africans writing about Africa—now there is a template for what Africa is. Which is why I remember when I wrote my first novel and somebody said to me, “It’s not authentic because the characters are too familiar.” Which meant that they— 
RB: Too familiar to whom? 
CNA: To him, the American—I won’t say his name. What struck me then was he had come to expect something of Africa, so the characters had to be unfamiliar and strange. In my more sarcastic moments I thought maybe he wanted them to swing from tree to tree. [both laugh]
 I liked the heck out of it.