It is sometimes hard to be optimistic, even for an optimist; it is hard even for me. And so, from time to time, I ask the universe to help me understand, to feed understanding in a way that might feed hope. The universe usually answers, though not always in a cute, tidy or immediately accessible way.
This time, the universe gave me Joshua.
A decade (and a lifetime) ago I worked, briefly, with one of Olusegun Obassango’s children who was in Memphis to help implement a Hope VI-funded project to overhaul public housing. The young Obassango, who was kind, quiet, funny and wildly bright, was entirely without fanfare. If you didn’t recognize his name, which I didn’t at first, then you’d never have known you were with the Nigerian president’s son.
Although he talked seldom, and very little, about his background, he piqued my interest enough that I have followed development in Nigeria more closely than I would have otherwise. Every time I hear Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on Morning Edition I think of my warm, intelligent, kindhearted friend and the hardships of his country.
Nigeria, a land rich with natural resources including oil, was annexed by Britain in 1861 and obtained independence in 1960. The first almost-four post-colonial decades were marked by alternating periods of democracy and military rule. Democracy Day, 29 May, commemorates the beginning of the fourth republic, Nigeria’s 1999 return to rule by a democratically-elected head of state.
In May 1999 Olusegun Obassango, military dictator from 1976-1979 who was credited with restoring the republic (for the second time in his long career) in 1998, was the first president elected in the fourth republic. He served two consecutive terms, 1999-2007.
President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, elected in 2007, died in office in 2010. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan succeeded to the office of president and then won election in his own right in 2011.
In May 2015, amid increasing tension between the north and south and the tumult caused by the rise of Boko Haram, former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, defeated President Jonathan to become the fourth president of the fourth republic.
No, the girls have not yet been found.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Houston where, once again, the most interesting person I met was a taxi driver – which is not to say that I didn’t meet some other very interesting people, only that the driver, Joshua, was especially so.
Joshua fled Nigeria more than 25 years ago, when he was finishing high school, during a time of strict military rule in his home country. With the help of the Southern Baptists, Joshua came, alone, to a border town in south Texas, leaving his entire family behind. He is still here; they are still there. He visits them once a year, for several weeks at a time, which is why he drives a taxi for a living, despite having undergraduate and master’s degrees in agriculture.
He volunteered these details – about his family and his education and his work – after I asked if he had been home since last year’s election, if things had changed since President Buhari took office. Apparently not many people have asked him this question, so I had to explain my interest in and (very limited) knowledge of his homeland.
In exchange, Joshua told me his story, about his time living near the Mexican border, how he was frightened all the time by the sound of gunshots, how in Nigeria people lived in fear of the military but not of each other, how a fellow student helped him get to Houston to finish his studies and begin the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, how he has since come to see Houston as the entire world – every culture – in one city. How he is so very grateful, every day, to live here, in America.
At this point he stops to ask if I have traveled abroad, and I tell him that I have, but only to Europe and South America – which is to say, only to other Western cultures.
He says: It is enough for you to see, though; it is enough for you to have perspective. You know what I know, that nowhere else in the entire world is like the United States.
I pause to think about this idea, surprised by the simplicity of it and the fact that it has never occurred to me in quite this way. Though there are many democratic republics in the world, there is not another country exactly like ours, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
This is what Joshua loves about being in Houston, that every culture in the world is represented and given the freedom of expression that is unique to the United States. He wishes more U.S.-born citizens would travel abroad more so they could see clearly what we have. He says this with an earnestness that temporarily robs me of words.
It is hard, sometimes, to be optimistic, even for an optimist.
Optimism requires a certain suspension of disbelief that, these days, feels at least inappropriate and borders on obscene. The notion that we should each simply tend to our own, continue to plod along, trying to heal the world one human bridge at a time, appears utterly, totally inadequate. To ignore the Pandora’s Box of hate spilling out everywhere, the horror of Orlando, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Dallas, Istanbul, Nice or – just today – Baton Rouge would be beyond foolish. As Anne Lamott wrote last week: There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on….
While it is true that only light can drive away darkness, it is also true that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. The bleak expanse of dark injustice spreading in between our thousand points of light seems, today, to have the upper hand. It is hard, even for an optimist, to feel hopeful about the future. It is hard, even for me.
But I fake it pretty well, I think. And, to my very core, I will always believe that we choose how we feel, that attitude is entirely internal, that every day we each have the option of choosing happy or unhappy.
When I climbed into the taxi Friday morning (because I am old school and still use taxis), the driver asked, as some do: How are you today?
I had to think before answering: I’m great.
The driver, whom I would later know as Joshua, looked at me, puzzled at first and then smiling and then laughing.
Joshua said: You are great! I am great today, too. We are blessed, you and I, that we are both great.
I asked the universe for some help in understanding, for some insight to help make sense of the terrible world. The universe, on Friday, gave me Joshua, who tells everyone he meets, everyone he knows, the one and only thing he believes is most important to understand about America:
In Nigeria, family houses have one bathroom. All houses are built this way, and everyone has to share. When you have friends over, when your extended family comes, you all have to share this one bathroom. In America, houses are built so that everyone can have a bathroom, so you don’t have to wait, so you can have some privacy. Even the new houses in the projects are build like this, with two or three bathrooms for a family.
Joshua says: When you have your own bathroom, you know that you are valuable. So, in America, we have to keep building, until everyone has a home, until everyone has a bathroom, until everyone knows that they have worth.
Food | Week of July 18, 2016
Greek-style tomato salad with mint | Grilled chicken