Musings from 35,000 Feet

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I’m sitting precariously at 35,000 feet above the earth, on a Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Syracuse, New York; thinking back on the activities of the weekend. I was at an event in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday where former US President, Bill Clinton was guest speaker. I’ve always been fascinated by the Clintons, and it’s barely three weeks since I was listening to Hillary talk about the role of young people in building a better world. Hillary spoke directly to me on Monday April 23, 2012 when she said “Be skeptical, but don’t be cynical”. She was talking about why young people need to be engaged with the political system and seek ways of being involved in birthing a new world. I’m guessing someone must have let slip to Hillary that I was completely disillusioned with politics and had sworn to never be involved with the ‘dirty game’. This time, it’s Bill’s words that I recall: “creative cooperation works”; he was speaking about the possibility of each person being a change agent and realizing that all human beings are connected together irrespective of their locations in the world. He said; “whether we like it or not, our futures are bound together”. The Clintons are very smart people and between Bill, Hillary and Chelsea, the world has seen a model of a family devoted to public service and seeking social justice. “I hope I can build such a family some day”, I began to think to myself.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton at Columbia College, SC

The plane is jolted sharply as we run into some thick clouds, and I’m snapped back to reality. “What a weekend I had! It felt so good to be away from my daily routine and spend some precious time with friends and family; now I’m headed back to my life as usual.” Just before taking off, I engaged in a few discussions about the importance of hard work, even in America, especially for those of us who realize what it took to get to the white man’s land. We mourned the decrepit state of social services back home and made light jokes about how impossible it was to have so many houses built without fences; in fact, I have not seen a single fenced house in all thirteen American cities that I’ve travelled in recently. “What kind of superior thinking led these people to realize that the best form of security lies in keeping one’s doors slightly open for all to see? That’s weird, isn’t it?”

I’m peeking out of my window now and I can see the entire city of Atlanta sprawled beautifully under me. “What an amazing view! This is surely God’s own country. How long, if ever, will it take us to build cities like this in Nigeria? How soon will we get over the needless bickering and petty politics that we seem so hung up on and get about delivering social services to people and creating structures that encourage further development? Random thoughts are jostling for attention in my mental cavity and I remember the email I received from a friend last week; he pastors a church in Syracuse and he had read a post in an online magazine about pastors in Nigeria encouraging their followers to respond to the recent spate of bombings in the north with equal violence. He thought that this admonition negated the principles of Christianity and wanted to get my views on it. I was quite enraged as I skipped over the article. With rapid fire, I mailed the following response to him:

“A lot has been made about the tensions in the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south, but in my opinion, the lines are not so clearly drawn. The south is divided into the South-West, South-East and South-South. The South-East and South-South are mainly Christian, though several Muslims live there too, however the South-West where I’m from, is evenly split between Christians and Muslims.

For all I know, in all three regions in the South, there have been few religious wars in recent times. The wars seem to always emanate out of the North and the line of attack has often been on churches. That, I believe camouflages the war as being religious, however, the roots of the war are political and economic. I don’t know that Muslims are riled against Christians because they antagonize Christianity; what I believe is that they have taken to attacking Christians because the former President (1999-2007) was a Christian from the South-West and the sitting President (2011 till date) is a Christian from the South-South. Their grouse is not against Christianity, but underdevelopment in the North. Mostly all developmental projects in the country are concentrated across the south; to the detriment of the North. Literacy rates in some states in the north are as low as 20% and conditions of living up there are the worst in the country. However, because much of the culture is based on Islam, and much of the instruction is given through the religious leaders, the first line of attack in channeling their grievance is through religious institutions, hence the attack on churches. I believe that they are merely expressing their disappointment at the level of underdevelopment in their regions when contrasted with the resources available in the country.

That being said, I have not heard a single Christian preacher motivate his audience to respond to the attacks with violence, as some have said. Of course, I have heard Christians complain about the killings and voice out their frustrations, but I guess commentators are over-stretching their imaginations by saying that Christians are actually considering violence. As recent as the latest attacks yesterday, I read about Christians being puzzled as to the way forward, but I sincerely doubt that violence is a serious consideration. Christians have been very civil about this all along, knowing that this really is not a religious war, but a manifestation of the challenges of underdevelopment.

We all pray for solutions soon, but none seems to be coming from the current crop of political elite in the country, quite sadly.”

We’ve been traveling for more than two hours now. I can still see the lights in the far distance even though we’re now several miles above earth. There’s a feeling of serenity all over the aircraft as we take in the beautiful sunset. My thoughts quickly shift back to Bill Clinton; he made some simple yet profound statements in his 30-minute speech yesterday. He spoke about his presidency and some of the achievements that were made while he was in office. “You know how many websites there were when I took the oath of office? Fifty! Now there are over a billion websites and several more are being created every minute”. He challenged the people in the audience to think deeply about the future: “you have to decide what you want the world to look like when your children are sitting in your seat…it’s a terrible burden when you know you can do something, because you gotta do it…when we think we know it all, we’re on our way to ruin…Thomas Jefferson spoke about each individual being endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and a pursuit of happiness; what matters is the pursuit of happiness, that’s where the joy is! Working hard to see that the world is a better place brings happiness, and then you wouldn’t even see it as work!”

“Tell them, Bill. Tell them! You need to tell this to the despots who populate Aso Rock; let them know that they need to stop dancing around the issues of social justice and economic development and get busy with rebuilding the country. How long are we going to wait for them to get their act together?” Wait a minute; Bill wasn’t really talking about politicians, was he? He was encouraging young people to be agents of change across the world and break through the glass ceiling of incompetence and discouragement. “Well, well, we’ve heard that all our lives. Why does the older generation continue to motivate the younger generation to seek ways of cleaning their mess? Why couldn’t they just clean up after themselves so that we can get our creative juices flowing without having to worry about undoing some of the damage they have created?”

“We will be arriving Syracuse in about 15 minutes, you can expect beautiful weather this evening…” the air hostess’ voice punctuates my inner musings. “I guess I have to bring my thoughts to a close then, what’s the way forward? Nigerians are intensely frustrated with the direction of the country, and rightly so. What kind of people would we be if we have endured so much hardship and found no avenues to channel our grievances? Of course, we have to protest and protest loudly, but then what? What really is the way forward? Young people are fleeing the country to get degrees in Ghana, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia; parents are retiring to the Caribbean islands, some to obscure spaces as far away as Bahrain; working professionals are seeking to extend their careers abroad and stave off the day when they have to return home; in short, everyone is running away from Nigeria. But what about those who are unable to leave the country? Is there really a way forward for us?”

“Please fasten your seat belts; we’re encountering a little turbulence….” I hear the captain’s voice this time. The plane shakes uncontrollably for a couple of minutes and everywhere around me, people are clutching their seats tightly and making frantic prayers under their breaths, while trying to appear calm. No one wants to be seen as a sissy, though their heart rates have just tripled. I smile lightly and wave at the little kid seated across from me. “This is not the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced”, I tell myself.

“We would be landing shortly, please turn off all electronic devices and stow them away safely and ensure that your seat is in the upright position…”

People are still quietly praying for a safe landing, so I join in prayer. I whisper a couple of words to God for direction as I seek to understand my place in helping to rebuild Nigeria; “I really want to be involved in changing my country, so God please show me what you would have me do”.

“Sir, please turn your laptop off, we’re close to landing…”

“Alright”

A strange thought crosses my mind; “what if we never land?” Well, my friends and family know that I’m committed to seeking a better world and that I love all things good. They know that I love to work hard and encourage people to reach inwards for their true selves and above all, to stay dedicated to their values and never lose sight of what’s important. They’ll always retain positive thoughts of me. Wait a minute, am I crafting my final thoughts? No way, we’re surely going to land. This plane is going to land in a few minutes; I need to power my laptop off and prepare for landing. I’m going home tonight. I have to get back to work tomorrow. When I get home, I’ll continue to think about the words of Bill Clinton and I’m sure I’ll think of a way to help Nigeria find her foot again. I am a change agent. For now I have to console myself with the thought that slowly but surely, we will rise again. I know we will.

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