[written in Baltimore, MD, for publication in a Catholic Nigerian magazine]
Before coming to Nigeria, I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the mutual causes of poverty and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. I outlined a number of the main reasons so many Sub-Saharan African countries suffer from such high rates of both poverty and HIV/AIDS. I cited lack of educational opportunities, the brain drain and insufficient infrastructure among the causes of this crisis. I noted the failings of the Western world, how we have contributed to this dire situation. I emphasized the international community of which we are all a part, calling upon people to preserve the dignity of those dying in Sub-Saharan Africa.
I submitted my dissertation this time last year after having spent months researching, writing, and revising it. I worked hard to create a polished product, a piece of work inciting people to behave not just in a socially responsible, but a socially compassionate, manner. Again and again throughout its 40-some pages, I referred to the dignity denied of Sub-Saharan Africans—a certainty given the poverty and HIV/AIDS that so many endure.
I arrived in Nigeria about six months after completing my dissertation, and, during my time there, I unfortunately received daily confirmation of tribulations I had studied: scarce educational resources, qualified workers who had left the country to work elsewhere, and unreliable electricity, transportation and health care. I saw so many instances of what I had read and wrote about, and my heart broke at the devastating reality of it all. What I never witnessed, though, was something else I had written about confidently, something I just knew would be a result of all the plights Sub-Saharan Africans face: absence of dignity. On the contrary, I was immediately struck by the pronounced dignity of Nigerians. It was something I detected my very first night in Lagos, but did not recognize as dignity until a few days later. “Dignity!” I wrote in my journal. “That’s what Nigerians walk with.” In classrooms, where children sit crowded on benches and teachers encourage their academic growth using meager materials. In villages, where people depend heavily on rain that sometimes just will not fall, leaving them bereft of one of life’s most basic necessities. In hospitals, where women and men, girls and boys learn that they have a disease they hear only vicious rumors about. I consistently interacted with Nigerians in each of these circumstances, and in every single face I looked into, the dignity was unmistakable. Nigerians suffer unjustifiably, yes, but they nonetheless remain certain of their self-worth. They know that they endure what they should not have to, but that doing so does not make them any less valuable than someone anywhere else in the world. Nigerians were seemingly born knowing the lesson that so much of the rest of the world does not yet know: we are all intrinsically priceless. It is a message I labored over to articulate clearly in my dissertation, but one that Nigerians effortlessly exude.
And so despite the fact that this time last year I allegedly gained mastery of the nuances of poverty and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, today I look back on my time in Nigeria and know that that is where my truest learning occurred. It was in Nigeria, where dignity dwells in all hearts, that I understood the true resilience of the human spirit. Nigerians taught me—by example—despite the denial of so many of life’s commodities, dignity does not diminish. Suffering does not sever self-worth, and it is with that fortitude that people prosper.