Selfless, sympathetic, humble, sincere, passionate, emotional, and courageous.
These qualities represent what humanity is.
Or, a better way to put it is that they portray how humanity should be.
The other day, I watched a Ted Talk by a famous author, Chris Abani, on what he thought about humanity. Chris is an excellent author and novelist, often known for writing about his nation of Nigeria. He wrote about how the people of his country fought against a military-controlled government for their freedom.
At the age of 16, Chris was thrown in jail for publishing his first novel, Masters of the Board, because the book’s plot was based on a coup that was carried out in Nigeria just before the book was written. He was imprisoned for six months on the notion that he was conspiring against the government. Two years after this, he was imprisoned again for a year for continuing to write novels about the government. Another two years after this, he was thrown in jail a third time for conducting anti-government plays in front of government offices. But this time, he was placed on death row. With the help of his friends, he bribed a few officials and got out of jail, immediately moving to the UK afterward.
In his speech, Chris tries to explain his views on humanity, the direct and indirect nature of its expression, and justifies his definition through a few stories of his own. He focuses on the point that the world may be where it is today because of big powerful gestures, but that is not what makes this planet a better place. Small, considerate everyday acts of compassion are what he believes make us human.
He goes on to explain a highly respected philosophy of his Nigerian culture called Ubuntu. A direct translation of the term Ubuntu would be humanity towards others, and this translation is precisely what the doctrine tries to portray. The mere acts of care and love towards others are what solidifies humanity and its strength.
Chris discloses that explaining humanity would be a challenging task. So, he chose to give short accounts of people he found remarkable and more human, thus defining human nature through these stories.
He starts with his mother.
Chris’s mother was English and moved to Nigeria in the ’50s after meeting his father. She was a strong, confident woman, known for being outward with her actions, and had five beautiful children with her husband.
In 1968, his mother and his whole family were caught up in the middle of the Biafran war, the Nigerian Civil war. They moved from one refugee camp to another for one year, and Chris remarks that his mother never cried through the whole of it, even with all the hardships and troubles they faced.
Then one day in the near future, they were finally on an airstrip in Lisbon, ready to leave this war behind. Another woman in the airstrip noticed his mother, her ragged clothes, and her five hungry-looking children. She came over and asked what had happened. His mother explained to the woman their terrible situation because of the war. This woman proceeded to immediately empty her suitcase and give Chris’s mother all of her clothes. She also handed out some toys of her children to Chris and his siblings. That is when Chris said he saw his mother cry for the first time.
Years later, he asked his mother why she had cried then at the airport. She replied, “You can steel your heart against any kind of trouble or horror, but the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you.”
Another anecdote he shares is of a rite of passage for young men that his culture, the Igbo, had in Nigeria. Many of these rites of passage included killing little animals, and that made sense because of their agrarian community. When he was 13, it was time for him to kill a goat. He admits that he was a sensitive kid and didn’t want to kill a goat but had to. His friend Emmanuel, who was much older than him, came along with him that day. He recounts that Emmanuel was forced to serve as a boy soldier during the Biafran War, and having him there with him, made him feel better.
Chris explains that the voice of a goat is said to be very similar to a human and a goat’s eyes look like a baby’s eyes. So, when the time came to kill the goat, Chris couldn’t do it. His friend Emmanuel bent down, put his hand over the goat’s mouth, and covered the goat’s eyes so that Chris didn’t have to look into its eyes when he killed the goat.
Chris explains that, to Emmanuel, killing a goat must have seemed like such a menial task yet, he found it in himself to try and protect Chris. Chris continued, saying that he started crying, and Emmanuel stood there in silence until he was done. Afterward, he said to him, “It will always be difficult, but if you cry like this every time, you will die of heartbreak. Just know that it is enough sometimes to know that it is difficult.”
His message of understanding that we can make the world a better and brighter place by showing love and care to anyone who needs it is one of my main takeaways from this Ted Talk. The last story I’d like to share about Chris is another anecdote he let loose during his speech.
The Igbo, Chris’s cultural community, built their own gods. They would all come together as a community, and they would express a wish to their priest. And then the priest would find a ritual object, and the appropriate sacrifices would be made, and the shrine would be built for their god. If the god became unruly and began to ask for human sacrifice, the Igbos would destroy the god. They would knock down the god’s shrine, and they would stop saying the god’s name. This is how they showed their humanity, and so I’d like to end with a quote from Chris Abani himself,
Every day, all of us here, we’re building gods that have gone rampant, and it’s time we started knocking them down and forgetting their names. It doesn’t require a tremendous thing. All it requires is to recognize among us, every day – the few of us that can see – are surrounded by people like the ones I’ve told you. People with humanity.
3 thoughts on “The Human in Humanity”
This is absolutely beautiful, so many wonderful takeaways
Needed some of this energy right now. Such a beautiful piece about a man with such a rich life!
This is so beautiful, definitely made my day better