Yesterday, I read a random Tweet from my writer friend, Ukamaka Olisakwe, author of Ogadimma. She narrated a racist incident on an American road. It reminded me of a similar encounter of mine on an English road a decade or so earlier when a Caucasian woman dashed across the road to avoid me. Both cases drip racism. Yet, the Road is hungry. The road is used by saint and sinner. It leads home, to the mall, to a rave… it can also lead to the grave.
The grave… I remember the hungry Uyo road that young Ini Umoren walked last week. She had followed the road, trusting that the man before her was what he claimed to be: a potential employer offering a secretarial job. Instead, he had raped and murdered her, burying her remains in a backyard full of abductees like her. I am therefore constrained to return to that English street, to strip from the memory, the distracting patina of racism that the incident has worn all those years.
I approach the road differently…
…in the skin of a blonde alighting from a Woolwich bus. I weigh only 60 kgs, but my head is heavy with a history of violence against me and girls I have known, by bigger, heavier men, known and unknown. The bus pulls away, leaving me on the deserted lane. As I turn for home, a man approaches on the footpath in front of me. He is unsmiling, a grey-haired African, looking seven-foot tall from where I stand. He bears a backpack for good measure, and he doesn’t meet my eyes. Instead, he stalks silently towards me. I glance back at the disappearing bus. There is not a soul in sight. The man is still a dozen feet away… I am both afraid and ashamed of being afraid. Perhaps he is a good man, on the way home like me… perhaps he is not… then my nerve breaks and I run across the road. I am a little ashamed as I pass him on the other side… but I am also a little relieved: I am still alive.
I am back in my own skin, reliving the murder of Ini Umoren and thousands of innocent girls like her, known and unknown. In the very yard where her body was found, were exhumed a dozen more victims of a gruesome crime family of father and male and female children. These murders are a Law-and-Order problem. Their solution requires a systemic, holistic transformation of Nigeria. But in the meantime our daughters and sisters and children are dying everyday, and there are everyday things that you and I can do for the vulnerable on this wonderful, terrible road of life: we can practice more empathy. By rejecting the distractions of gender wars and ethnic wars and the rabid Otherness that separates and isolates us from one another, we can make The Road of Life less vicious for the lonely.
People disabled by prejudice (like Ukamaka’s racist) have a limitless capacity to poison society by fouling up the environment. They make our roads colder: people witness atrocities directed at strangers without batting an eyelid. We must not mirror or replicate their poison and dysfunction…
…because the road is pregnant. One stroke of fate converts the powerful road user into a powerless victim at the mercy of passing wayfarers. I have been there. Rest in Peace, Ini and other victims of the Devil’s spawn. As a regular beneficiary of the Angels of the open road, I pledge once again to culture empathy across the divides of society, to keep an eye open, to keep an ear open, and to cross the road to go to the assistance of the vulnerable and the needy.