Monday, May 5, 2008

The Missing Girl

On Wednesday night, I’m about to sit down for another dinner of beans when I hear the mob approaching. Parades of people through Kagoro aren’t uncommon; usually, people are marching to celebrate their religion or a major holiday. But these voices aren’t praising God or singing Christmas carols. I don’t need to speak Hausa to recognize the wave of anger that’s coming toward my house. I assume that it must be a demonstration against NEPA, since the community has been without electricity for the past four days. Similar angry outbursts have erupted in other communities after prolonged outages, so it makes sense that my neighbours have taken to the streets to show their displeasure. The district chief lives across the road from me, literally a stone’s throw, so the crowd comes to a stop right in front of my house. The number of people begins to swell, as those trailing behind finally catch up to the others who have taken their position on the road. Angry shouts come from all directions, and a few of the people push their way into the chief’s house. Having confirmed that the mob isn’t here to get me, I decide to stop peeking from behind my living room curtain and find out what’s going on.

My front door makes more noise than a medieval drawbridge, so my entry into the front yard doesn’t go unnoticed. As is usually the case, a spotlight shines on me, though people are less interested in me than they normally are. I approach a couple of teenagers sitting on the wall next to the road and scare the hell out of one of them by tapping him on the shoulder. He and his friend have no idea what’s going on and just joined the crowd because it was there. As we talk, more villagers stream into the chief’s yard, until it’s clogged with people yelling at his house. NEPA still seems the most likely culprit, but no one is giving me any answers. Finally, one of the security guards for my house shows up and I ask him what’s going on. As it turns out, NEPA is the furthest thing from people’s minds.

Yashen explains that the mob has formed to demand some answers about a four-year-old girl who disappeared three days ago. She and her mother were returning from a trip into the Kagoro mountains when her mother, carrying food and other items, decided she couldn’t manage both her load and her daughter. Spotting a stranger headed in the same direction, she asked him to go ahead with the girl while she continued behind them. She asked the man to drop her daughter by a bridge that spans the river north of the village. After losing sight of the two of them, the woman met up with a friend and lost some time in conversation. Arriving at the bridge, she found no one there, and her daughter has been missing ever since.

Eventually, the man was located and he pled his innocence, saying he left the girl at the bridge as instructed and moved on. No trace of the girl has been found by the bridge or elsewhere. Word soon spread through Kagoro of the girl’s disappearance, but rather than contacting the police, who are widely regarded as both ineffective and corrupt, a native doctor was brought in the next day to find the girl. Native doctors, also called witch doctors by some, have considerable power and influence in communities like Kagoro. Described as having two pairs of eyes, one for the material world and one for the realm of the spirits, native doctors are often consulted when unexplained occurrences strike a community. In this case, the local native doctor was seen as the best chance to locate the missing girl. Blaming the disappearance on witchcraft, the doctor promised he would contact those responsible and bring the girl back, dead or alive - after receiving his fee, of course. He set a deadline of two days to produce the girl, assuring the community that she would be returned by Wednesday night. When the deadline passed without any sign of the girl, the villagers became furious and organized the rally leading to the present scene unfolding in front of me.

Where whispers of witchcraft begin circulating, people soon lose the capacity for reason and rumours become gospel. At various points in the evening, all of those involved with the girl on that day are identified as suspects in her disappearance. A secret cabal involving everyone she met is even constructed and blamed. Vigilante justice is as fierce in this community as it is elsewhere in Nigeria, so anyone suspected of a crime is immediately at risk of a beating or worse. Stories of people being beaten to death or buried alive in retaliation for a death are repeated throughout the country. As the rumours swirl through the evening, the mother of the girl is taken into the chief’s home for her own protection. The native doctor is also called in to explain what he has accomplished so far. At some point, the police are also summoned, because two members of the force show up and enter the chief’s house. Though seething at this point, the mob continues to be well-behaved and holds off on carrying out its threat to start burning buildings, an outrageous plan that few believe anyway.

Finally, after consulting all of those involved, the chief appears outside his home and addresses the crowd. He explains that the native doctor has been assigned the responsibility of finding those involved and reporting back to the chief by the next evening. Those whom he has identified will then be summoned to the chief’s house and ordered to produce the girl or they will be turned over to the police. In a community as small as Kagoro, keeping the suspects’ identities a secret will be next to impossible, so the greater danger faced by those involved will come not from the law but from their fellow villagers.

The next night, as instructed, the native doctor comes to the chief’s house and identifies the suspects. He points the finger at the mother and explains that she and a group of others are involved in the girl’s disappearance. I somehow doubt that he reached this conclusion through CSI-approved methods, but his word was good enough for the police, who take the mother into custody. Under interrogation, the mother confesses that she is responsible for the sacrifice of her daughter, but upon release, she recants, saying she was intimidated into giving her confession. She has yet to be formally charged with anything. No one else has been brought into custody. Somewhat surprisingly, the community’s reaction to all of this has been muted, and it appears that if the mother is indeed responsible, she will suffer no retribution from the villagers, as it is her own child that she has killed, and such matters are left to be dealt with inside the family and by the law, if it proceeds that far.

In the meantime, the little girl is still gone and is unlikely to ever be found, dead or alive. This is the tragedy. Forget about who’s to blame and whether witchcraft or the belief in it played a role. A child has disappeared as a result of neglect or malice and that’s a terrible, horrible shame.

By coincidence, I completed a proposal this week that requests funding from the Canadian International Development Agency to establish an Advocacy Centre for Children within the Fantsuam Foundation, the organization where I've been working for the past five months. The focus of the Advocacy Centre will be to raise awareness within the local communities of the rights of children and to lobby the state government to adopt measures already in place in other parts of the country, including the Child’s Rights Act that the National Assembly passed into law five years ago. Here’s hoping that the funding comes through. As this story amply demonstrates, children here need all of the help they can get.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How does one begin? On the one hand, in a meta-analysis, your story telling is such that I am intrigued by the tale yet emotionally not involved. This is not a critique, but an observation on myself.

Is it possible that when we face the truly horrific, as humans we simply become detached? is this a defense mechanism, an attempt at applying an emotional salve, like a sunblock, to keep the evil humours away?

Or am I simply tired, in the midst of a long week, in the middle of a month that cannot decide whether it's spring or late winter or early fall?

We humans cope is so many different ways. One telling point of your story is the accused mother. From our perspective, she's innocent until proven guilty, and while we might concede the possibility that she was negligent, that doesn't make her a killer or even a bad mother.

The reaction of the mob is even more telling. Once the collective was convinced that she was the guilty one, then it was no longer their concern. It became a family matter -- somewhat akin to a private issue no longer of concern to the group....or a state matter, a situation for the police to handle. In this instance, the state not being us the people, but the system of justice and corruption.

ASIDE: this seeming distinction between the "state" and the community is an interesting topic worth discussing on its own. Since the time of the French Revolution, and even with the American Revolution, and the writings of Locke and Hume, there is a strong sense of the community, the common good, as part of our culture (give or take the contemporary breakdown of this gestalt). The common good ranges from being synonymous with the state and all of its structures (rule of law) to the specific causes of interest groups (even to the point of civil disobedience). What is the sense of community and common good, and their relationship to the state, in societies that do not have the same cultural foundations we work with? We have a history of thinking about our personal and collective relationship to the polis as state structure, and as defined for us by such thinkers as Aristotle, Acquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Kant, Rousseau, etc. How do the individual, collective and state relate to one another in a culture that does not reflect philosophically on these things but lives these things at the gut level of human enterprise and existence? Food for a doctoral thesis....back to the story....

Of even more interest is the fury of the mob that was fanned so long as suspicion reigned. Once a sense of truth was fomented, even if it was a forced confession, then the group backed off. It was "satisfied" that suspicion had been allayed.

The key here is the power of suspicion, of rumour and conjecture, of imagination in its wildest ability to see evil even when none exists.

This says something about the power of story, a reality we in the advanced economies of the world are somewhat immured to -- mostly because we sacrificed the power of story and imagination on the altar of measurable proof and scientific verification [too bad for us]. We encounter lots of tales in our lives; most of the western news is a tale about something; our TV/media culture is all about tales, but there is little in our lives that constitutes bona fide stories.

Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchock told stories through TV and movies. They frightened us with the possibilities of human experience -- which is the heart of all storytelling. It's not the plot that counts; it's not the adventure or shoot-em-up; it's the character; it's seeing human possibility unfold before our eyes.

Taking a shower after Psycho was a fearsome thing because "it could happen to me" dominated our minds and imaginations. At the last supper, when Jesus foretold that one of his disciples would betray him that night, all of them were deeply disturbed -- suspicion rose high amongst the group as they looked upon each other with the telling eye of the accusor. For deep down inside, each also suspected that the betrayer could have been himself. Hence Judas's response to Jesus, voicing the suspicions of the collective: is it I, Lord?

What moved the crowd? suspicion... the lack of detail, of conclusion, of closure, which gives rise to the ghosts that haunt each of us individually and collectively.

When I was chaplain at Sick Children's Hospital here in Toronto, we always encouraged parents to spend time with their deceased child [the gruesome final moments after the child was already pronouced dead]. To say farewell, to weep and mourn, and more primitively, to see in fact that the child is dead, no longer alive, not able to be held and loved as once before.

As cruel as this may sound, it was necessary so that mourning could begin with the hard recognition that the world these parents once knew no longer existed because they were no longer parents to this child. [It was one of the difficult parts of being a pastor that I didn't have the emotional and spiritual strength to I left before I became an alcoholic.]

The village group needed to know -- something, anything, even a lie... no differently from our need to know -- which is the purpose of the 5th estate, the news media, here in the west.

Our human need to know ranges from curiosity [the teenagers sitting on the wall who joined the crowd but didn't know why] to direct involvement [is it witchcraft? is it betrayal? is it I, Lord?] and the need to mourn.

Mourning is more than just grieving over the loss or death of someone; it's about recognizing the world we once knew has come to an end because of the death [or disappearance] of someone and we have to reconstruct reality/the world in order to live. It begins by knowing, and from knowing we admit that the end is the end and there is a new beginning.

The docility of the group after the confession of the mother has many dimensions: now we know and can allow our imaginations to stop wandering into the deepest darkest recesses of fear [the ghosts of our imaginations have been put to bed]; now we know and are relieved it's someone else and "not I"; now we know and can rebuild our world/the universe all over again, sans this little girl.

Of course, in all of this, the little girl barely appears as the focal point of your story. Your title is "The Missing Girl", but by the end we know less about her than we did when you started. The absence, the still point, the void, which in this case has a name [the little girl], gives rise to event -- a happening fraught with meaning, both collective and individual. It is the event you speak of, not the little girl.

Maybe that's why I entered into a meta-analysis of this situation, because the horrific center point, the missing little girl, just isn't there. It's the still point around which the dance of life swirls.

YET ANOTHER ASIDE: I recently came across a reference to something called "string theory". Beyond relativity and chaos theory, scientists are now looking at the inter-relationships and connectivity among seemingly random occurances and have come up with the theory of things connect as pearls strung on a necklace. The physicality of the necklace analogy might be too strong, but string theory even alludes to something called the "music of the spheres" -- a major "scientific concept" popular from late classical [Ptolomaic Astonomy] and throughout medieval western thought. I'm only guessing at what this might mean, but it's something to consider because it allows us to tell a different kind of story [which is what a good scientific theory is all about]. I think the butterfly flapping its wings in the jungles of Brazil that causes the tsunami is Indonesia is somehow related to this string theory...

In the story of the missing girl we have a series of seemingly random coincidences, potentially well intentioned and innocent [as CSI would say, it's not about motive or intent, it's about the evidence], that have gelled into a "cohesive story" -- cohesive enough in the realm of imagination to give rise to a mob scene and eventual closure [a forced confession]. Would string theory apply here? what would Gil Grissom say?

In re-reading everything I've written, I find it remarkable just how scientifically dispassionate I am in my "analysis". Why so devoid of emotion? I need to think about that [or maybe that's the problem: I'm thinking too much about it and not facing the raw reality].