“The child is better dead than lost”
– Ukwuani Proverb
My children grew up staying mostly with me. They did not go to boarding school and even when they went away on holiday, I cannot recall them spending two or three weeks away at a stretch.
At about 18 when the eldest moved into the hostel after her admission to the university in Lagos, there was hardly any weekend when I did not find an excuse to visit, often under the pretext of taking some needed provision to her.
I’ve found that I’m not alone. If we can help it, we, parents, want our children to be near, until it becomes inevitable to empty the nest.
My moment of truth came in 2010 when the same eldest child who had been at the University of Lagos, had to transfer to the US to continue her studies.
It was my lot to take her to school just weeks after Mutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, had made entering US hell for Nigerians. Going through immigration was a nightmare, but that was the beginning of my emotional roller coaster.
After she completed her registration at school and it was time for me to return, the humiliation at the US border control on our arrival paled into insignificance compared with the trauma of leaving her behind.
Was I really going to leave behind all by herself nearly 10,000 miles away from home and family? Was I going to leave her in a place where if ever she made a distress call I would be unavailable even 24 hours after her call for help?
Was transferring her to school in the US thousands of miles away from home the right decision?
On that last day of my visit to her dormitory on my way to the airport back to Nigeria, after we hugged, said our goodbyes and she closed the door, I still stood there outside her door for a very, very long time, before I slunk off. It was hard.
Yet, this was not supposed to be a sad separation.
Since February 19 when Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls from Dapchi, I’ve been thinking about that day in Austin, Texas, when I left my daughter all by herself, for the first time in both of our lives, not knowing what was going to happen to her after my departure.
If I could be so deeply confused and saddened by the prospects of her safety in a largely secure place, then I wonder how the parents of the Dapchi 110 must be feeling, losing the apples of their eyes to murderous strangers with no idea where they are now and what is happening to them.
Buhari came close to this experience in a public way, lately. In December, his son, Yusuf – his only son – was involved in a bike accident that nearly claimed his life.
The country rallied round him and the First Family – which is as it should be. I still remember those pictures from the early days of the accident, when the poor chap’s life was hanging by a thread at Cedacrest Hospitals, Abuja.
Buhari and his wife, Aisha, visited the hospital a couple of times. On no occasion was the red carpet laid out for them like it happened during the President’s visit to Dapchi.
When I saw photographs from that Dapchi visit that was the first thing that struck me – the red carpet and Buhari’s light blue three-piece agbada and a matching cap.
I’m not saying his heart was not heavy with grief or that he should have faked his concern by appearing in rags. But for God’s sake, it was a solemn visit, in some way reminiscent of his visits to Yusuf after the chap’s bike accident.
It was a visit to a crime scene strewn with the broken emotions of a community that is half-dead, as one resident described it. If it didn’t occur to Buhari’s chaperons not spread the red carpet and deck the place like a set for the Oscars, didn’t the President himself think that his appearance was insensitive?
I understand that only one thing is important now – the safe return of the girls, and hopefully, the other 100 Chibok girls still unaccounted for. Yet symbols, especially genuine and moderate symbols, can help the community manage in a very difficult and distressing moment like this.
It didn’t help matters that Buhari was comparing his response with that of former President Goodluck Jonathan in Chibok. He ought to know that no two miseries are ever alike; yet each demands our fullest empathy and nothing less.
Every time the door opens or closes in any of those 110 homes in Dapchi, the families expect to hear something about their missing girls.
Every time they enter the rooms where their children used to sleep, hear someone with a similar voice, see someone in similar clothes, or find a striking silhouette around the corner, the memories of their missing girls come flooding back.
They deserve more than dumb comparisons and a red carpet guest that will not wipe away their tears.