Mass Dying

I’m afraid, as you are, of anonymity—the unself, a forgotten name, an unremembered identity. This is the tyranny of mass deaths, and mass burials.

Where do stories hide after a bomb has gone off, after a town is left massacred? If stories disappear, how can they be returned to life? And if a name lies hidden within the leftover bits of a destroyed market, or a massacred town, is it still a name?

All over the world there are anonymous gravestones. In all the places where death is an ominous bridegroom—death that comes without warning—names disappear with a loud blast.

I think gravestones matter. I think death is scared of being named. If we look without fear at shredded limbs and blood that smells like melted metal, we’ll traverse the anonymity of unnamed corpses.

When dying becomes shared, a strange disruption occurs in the balance of justice. Justice works with identification, with straight not crooked fingers of accusation. It seeks a name, an act, it admits no exception. Too many destinies are decided in one loud blast, or in one devastating massacre—this cannot be justice.

What happens in a mass grave is outrageous. All paths intersect; limbs cross and skeletons misplace their bones. There is nothing purposeful in lacking an identity, even in death.


Death, rightfully, is said to be the imagination of the living. When hundreds of people are named dead, following a massacre, the hashtags that follow aim to discover the nature of dying. Mourning is imagining your own death, nothing more. It’s a form of humility to admit that you mourn yourself; that while mourning you realize the immediacy of life’s moments. Grief should be utility. Grief should become a way to avoid unnecessary dying. Anything else is like frolicking in the wrong garden.

In Nigeria, where ethnic fault lines couldn’t be made to intersect by amalgamation, grieving takes this unique utilitarian shape.

Go mourn yourself.


Breyten Breytenbach tells a story:

Today I heard about two twin ladies in their great old age, having lost both their husbands and the memory of orgasms and names, sitting together in a room warmed by an evening sun, and the one turning in utter uncertainty to the other to enquire plaintively: “Tell me, am I alive?”

The ultimate despair comes from sorrow jagged from overuse. Too many questions erupt in a climate of terror, but none more significant than those that interrogate the borders of memory, experience and existence. I think of too many Nigerians in the Northeast and North-central wondering whether life lived as a blur is still life at all. Today you wouldn’t need to be of a great old age to lose the memory of orgasms and names. Terror works the same way rape works; during the rapacious act, all pleasure is impossible, even the impulse to imagine pleasure.

Those who have the luxury to afford long moments of laughter must not overrate their experience. They must live with the burden of shared joylessness. For now there are moments of security in southern Nigerian cities. Those who live there must be desperate about enjoying this luxury while they can.

It’s important to remember that joy, in Nigeria today, is an unclaimed territory.

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