PARALLAX: Jos, Nigeria 2013 by J. Barook

PARALLAX: Seeing the same thing from two different points of view renders three dimensions.

According to Wikipedia, parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight. The essays contained in PARALLAX reflect the same displacement. While the shift can be uncomfortable or jarring or even unrecognizable, a new reality is created from the old.

Banana pic

Jos, Nigeria 2013

Rainy season was just beginning. Everybody hoped the flooding wouldn’t be as bad as last year. We drove past rock formations, flowered cactus trees, and white herds of long-horned cattle, herdsmen sitting in the shade. Wide plateau spread under sky. Sun fanned through jagged breaks in clouds. According to my data, this was where all the killing was these days, at least around here. Boko Haram blew stuff up in the northeast; gang violence in the south. Around here, the violence was mainly between pastoralists and farmers, just like in the American Wild West, but with a lot more bodies and also there was a religious dimension, an ethnic dimension, and a political dimension that made it a hell of a lot worse than Oklahoma ever was. AK-47s did more damage than muskets and six-shooters.

At the military checkpoints, soldiers didn’t usually extort the travelers, but police always did. When you got stopped by police, you could expect to pay some kind of bribe. Barrels full of concrete blocked the road. We stopped. A happy policeman knocked on my window and gestured that I should roll it down. “How Goodluck?” he said. Goodluck Jonathan was the name of the president. We were driving up from the capital. That’s why that was a funny thing for him to say. Then he handed me a mini banana and another one each for everyone else in the taxi. Those ended up being expensive bananas. The bananas were a nice touch, though. I hadn’t seen that one before. Plus they were pretty good, bright yellow but not overripe. The driver handed him 900 Naira. That was going to come out of my bill. It’s not a bribe if all you’re doing is paying for bananas, right? Everybody laughed and we ate our bananas.

Jos house picI’m an American but I was born in Nigeria. I hadn’t been to this town in 32 years. Last time I was here, my daddy was teaching me to ride a bike. I spent long afternoons climbing in that twisty tree in my front yard. Now, when you Google “Jos” and “Nigeria” all you see is burnt out cars and blown up houses, riots and corpses. You read stories of Christian gangs stopping cars and bludgeoning the drivers if they can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer (…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us), or Muslim gangs riding into town on a fleet of motorcycles and shooting up the place. A lot can change in 30 years.

At first glance the violence looks religious. But it’s not really. It’s between people who are considered to be insiders, or “indigenes” and people who are considered outsiders or “settlers,” even though their families may have been there for generations. The insiders are Christian farmers and the outsiders are Muslim pastoralists. People are very religious so religion serves as a kind of identifier. But they’re not actually killing each other over questions of doctrine, at least not around Jos. What about me? I’m not an indigene. I guess that makes me a settler, even though I was born here. Or maybe I don’t even count as a settler. Probably I don’t count at all. They opened the meeting with a prayer in the name of Jesus. “Are we interfaith?” I asked. Everybody turned to the Muslim woman, who smiled and said, “That prayer will suffice. We all worship the same God.”

In America, to our credit perhaps, we don’t have strong sense of in-group and out-group. That’s because there’s no collective, no shared context. We don’t assume we share a common world with anyone we meet in the metro system or the grocery story: norms, myths, or symbols. Everything has to be spelled out because nobody knows anybody else’s relatives. Nobody’s history intersects with anybody else’s. There’s no rhythm or weather pattern, no inside joke—just the literal meaning of the words that come out of your mouth. Everybody lives in cyberspace. The closest we get to a collective is Facebook, Super Bowl commercials, and the NSA surveillance program.

In a place like Jos, context is everything. Every word or gesture implies and responds to an assumed metanarrative that everybody shares. You’re never only talking about the thing you’re saying with your words. You’re in the slipstream of cosmic dialectic. You can skip straight from A to Z if you know the way the current flows; miracles can happen there. But if you don’t, you might as well not even try.

The nice thing about the absence of a collective or a shared context is that there’s rarely collective violence in America. Aside from the crazies and the criminals, it’s all Unabombers, Timothy McVeighs, and Tamerlan Tsarnaevs—lonely, angry assholes trying to tap into something doesn’t even exist. Jos is another matter altogether. In Jos, extralinguistic reality exists. It’s more real than the reality that can be parsed, measured, and defined. Like Faulkner said, the past is not past. But in 21st century America, we’ve deconstructed identity to the point that even the present is gone.

Reading back over this essay I feel like a pedant, playing at anthropology, pretending to be as smart as Edward T. Hall (who was really more poet than anthropologist I think). But when you see mob justice first hand, a twisted body smoking in the roundabout after being burned alive, you struggle to make some kind of crazy sense of it. Vigilantes still standing around afterwards, not saying anything, just standing there, arms at their sides. What kind of universe do these people live in? Maybe they’re more human than me. Maybe I’m just an avatar.

When we got into town, I hunted down my old house from 32 years before. The tree was still there in the front yard. It existed. It exists. So do I.


can’t see stars

or anything else

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s