They said I did not have any right to feel bad. I could not possibly be affected that much- after all, I was raised in Nigeria for the greater part of my life, even though I was born here. I can sing, at best, a few bars of The star spangled banner, and in my heart of hearts, I am a Nigerian – by lineage, by orientation – when I speak, I still get those “You’re not from around here” looks or questions. Others were more flexible and allowed that maybe it was natural for me to feel some trepidation, seeing as I did live in the United States now, and had a right to fear for my safety; besides, I also had a vested interest in whatever property I had acquired here. But beyond that, I was to feel indifference – after all, it wasn’t really ‘my problem’ – and resignation, an emotion that is common to most developing country indigenes.
Of course, there were the inevitable onslaught of arguments – does the possession of a U.S. passport or even a birth certificate give anyone the right to feel as sad and indignant as a ‘bona fide’ American? If not, how many years do you have to have been in this country to ‘earn’ that right? Who or what validates that right? At what point does your empathy become ‘selling out’? Questions, issues, questions, issues.
On September 11, 2001, I was at work in downtown Baltimore, when the first plane struck. My colleagues tuned into a news station, feverishly looking for more information. I remained at my desk, working mechanically, at the same time trying to process this information. Was this really happening? Later I turned on my radio to hear the broadcast and it sank in. America had been attacked – maybe the world was indeed ending today. I had come from a country with a history of total lack of regard for human rights, unending military regimes, annulled elections and a plethora of civil unrests, to America, land of the free and super power of all super powers. As an attorney and a writer, I could express my self freely here without fear of the government, without fear- period. In one day, all that had changed. Maybe I was better off in Nigeria, at least we knew where we stood. No surprises there. I remember now what my first thought was – “Is anywhere safe?”
Then there was the flurry to contact family, loved ones, friends. My siblings for the most part are in the U.S., but calling anywhere was a nightmare. Under the most optimal conditions, telecommunications is not Nigeria’s most efficiently run industry, so I sent an email and hoped for the best.
I had a nagging fear that people (strangers, colleagues, maybe even friends) would start to treat me differently after the attack. Would they see ALL foreigners as the enemy? I work in an international environment where we have a culturally diverse staff, so people are definitely more tolerant – but there is always that off-chance that aside from the need to be ‘politically correct’ some people might harbor resentment towards non-Americans. When some colleagues were attending a memorial ceremony the next day and I was not invited, I did wonder if it was inadvertent or deliberate. I lived in perpetual fear that I would have to suffer the embarrassment of being pulled out of line at the airport, amongst other things. I felt anger that I had developed such insecurities. Yes, my next emotion was definitely anger: I was angry that I felt the need to show that I was ‘pro-American’, despite the fact that I was American; I was upset that I had to justify my empathy to fellow Nigerians who felt I had no right to feel sad or that I was ‘faking’ it.
I also felt a deep sadness that one always feels when there is an unnecessary loss of life. I asked the questions “Why?” and “How could this happen?” along with just about every person I know. I marveled at how blessed America is and how much Americans take for granted. I could understand the sadness, and maybe the indignation, but not the indignation at being attacked ‘because we are America and nobody attacks us”. Not many countries have that luxury, to be able to feel that.
In conclusion, let me say this. I felt the pain, but I didn’t feel it as an American. And though I hate to admit this, there is a difference. Being Nigerian also, my perception is fatalistic in nature and we are accustomed to handling tragedy in a different way. There is an inherent acceptance, a resignation that flavors all we do. We say “God dey”, meaning literally, “There is God”. This is a statement as well as an answer to all questions. We believe that God is still God regardless of circumstance, and this is our hope, where we seek succor. We are not invincible, and certainly no super power, so we find our strength in other things, and being used to being in the lowest rungs, it doesn’t hurt so much to fall.
Excuse my ramblings, and I crave your indulgence in trying to glean from it an “American-foreigner’s” thoughts on the tragedy that transcended geography, and affected all of us, wherever we might have been and wherever we were from.